Florida 2006 cave diving trip
Worried by overhead environments, currents, tight squeezes, green stuff and alligators?
Well, there’s always the ladies in bikinis to take your mind off things.
Divers: Mark Cluett & Adam Stubbings
We departed London Gatwick and arriving in Atlanta after an uneventful flight, unfortunately BA failed to load Adams bags so we had to wait a day for them to arrive but this gave us an evening in Atlanta which turned out to be fun despite walking down a road that the locals later told us was not very safe. The following day we visited ﾒdown townﾓ Atlanta which was not very nice and we where surprised to see so many down and outs walking the streets. We finally collected Adams bags after finding out how truly disorganised BA are and set off on a 300 mile trip to cave country arriving at our trailer just before midnight local time.
Adam has dived this area 5 times so had very definite plans of what he wanted to do, as I have never been there I was happy to follow his plans.
Dive day 1 Monday 3rd April 2006
After a visit to the Cave Excursions dive centre to pick up our twin 112 cu ft (twin 17 litre) tanks we assembled our rigs and set off for Peacock I.
The car park was almost deserted; we had a quick wander around and meet the warden who sold us an annual Florida States pass.
After kitting up on convenient benches and a long walk along the boardwalk we entered into clear warm water from the steps. After our safety checks, Adam lead off down the main Peacock I passage. I felt head heavy down the steep entrance passage but once we levelled off was reasonably comfortable. The passage is made of light coloured rock and is mainly large with a heavy sand bottom. We saw small a few small cat fish and a few clear shrimps. Those 112’s where big and after missing the planned jump on the left we arrived at the Olsen sink hole with 190 bar left. We briefly surfaced before re-entering and returning and this time found the jump, now on the right where we put in my finger spool and jumped to the ﾒCross Overﾓ. We followed this and eventually reached ﾒThe Chuteﾓ which is a restricted section just before reaching our exit point which had also been our entry point but reached from a different passage. The sun was shinning and our brief safety stop was very pleasant with the green weed showing up well in the sun. We got out with 150 bars which made us decide to change to smaller twin 95 cu ft (12.7 litres) cylinders. According to the line markers the ﾒCrossoverﾓ to the line at ﾒPeanutﾓ is at 1100ft and the dive was about 2700ft in total.
The second dive was nearly a reverse of the first. We entered a Peacock I but took the left line which leads straight into ﾒThe Chuteﾓ restriction. We came across our two reels in turn which I retrieved and in both places followed the line arrows we had left which pointed right. As we where following lines we had put in we did not make the detour to Olsen. We climbed out on exactly two thirds remaining after a 2500ft swim.
Dive day 2 Tuesday 4th April 2006
First dive was from Water Hole III back to Peacock I. To get in you walk past Peacock I and follow the path to the left. The pool is unprepared and care is needed, entry is vertical in zero visability and I managed to get my torch cable caught on a tree branch while head down. Once inside, the main passage was very round with a heavy dark sand bottom and is approximately 880ft to the main line. We made a visual jump across to the Peanut gold line and headed back to Peacock I via the ﾒChuteﾓ. Total dive approximatelly1900 ft.
Second dive was from Orange Grove sink to Challenge Sink and back, this was part of our set up to do the ﾒGrand Traverseﾓ. I had a headache so we surfaced at the Challenge sink hole. Getting out was not an option so I lead back, my head was pounding and I was ragged as a result. I retrieved the primary reel and had nice relax in the head pool. I pulled my hood back and flooded my mask to alleviate my head ache which did not really help, but the head pool was a nice place to be. We had just swum a 3600 ft round trip. I am not really sure what caused the head ache but it’s a very hot place and despite drinking gallons a Gatorade it was hard to stay hydrated. CO2 retention is the other possibility.
Dive day 3 Wednesday 5th April 2006
We had to join the National Speleological Society, Cave Diving Section to be able to dive Cow, once members we obtained a key and set off to see what all the hype was about. We entered the pool and Adam put in a primary but due to the entrance being a steep narrow slope which had a right left Z bend the line crossed the entrance and the belays did not hold. This made a difficult entry against a strong current even harder. Once past the Z bend, there are several more meters of stomach and tanks squeezes to negotiate. Once into the main passage there are sections of one inch manila rope to pull on in addition to the guide line. This is there to protect the mud banks from fining but is useful as the current is strong.
There where some problems with this rope, in one place 2 of the three strands are worn through and in another place the rope follows a different route to the guide line.
There are further squeezes to negotiate and a straight down section which is hard against the current. When Adam called thirds at 1000 feet in, and 30m deep I was happy to turn and started the lead out. Now the current was a help but I still got stuck a couple of times and found that when stuck in a small hole the water was trying to force me through. If any kit had been caught it would have been very difficult to release luckily this was not a problem. I was very happy to see daylight and looking back this was definitely the toughest dive of the trip. I am glad we did it but am in no hurry to return.
Dive day 4 Thursday 6th April 2006
Ginnie Springs. It was a hot day and the water looked inviting. After entry and S drills we swam along the 2 meter deep channel to the ﾒDevils Earﾓ entry hole. At the bottom of this Adam laid the primary from a tree down the narrow entrance and in to the main line. The current was strong and in a steep head down section and I managed to turn my main torch off in a squeeze. The current was very strong so we went up into the ceiling and tried to pull and glide as much as possible. There are lots of turns and a few easy squeezes and we reached 29 meters deep. Adam called thirds and now I got to lead the exit with the current which was much more fun and a lot less effort. Fining was only necessary to turn and in a few dead spots. On a very sharp turn Adam put in a reel which we would later use for the jump in our next dive. On the final section the current was trying to force us up and we had to be careful to control the assent. This was easy enough as there are plenty of hand holds. The bottom of the head pool is 6m deep so makes a pleasant place for a safety stop. During our final assent a couple of young ladies in bikinis passed over head oblivious to our presence. We reached about 800 feet into the system which does not seem much but there was a strong current and the exit speed meant we got out with lots of gas remaining..
After lunch and trouble getting fills we set off again, this time the plan was for me to lead and once reaching the reel left on the previous dive jump to the right and head for the bone room which is so named as a dead turtle was found there. The entry was hampered by a foursome in front of use who where laying line. We had to wait for about 5 minutes for them which did nothing to help our thirds calculations. The current was as strong as before and this time I was trying to pull and glide with my palms to protect my finger tips. Once at the jump the current started to die down and I followed the line for what seemed like ages. Adam pointed out the upside down turtle shell and the far wall disappeared to show us we where in a large room. I was now looking for the main line which would take us out with the current. We passed two jump lines to the left but there was no sign of the main line.
As my thirds approached I knew Adam would have passed his and as he knows the system I knew the main passage was close, we reached it just as I hit thirds.
Turning before the main line would have meant a long swim with no assisting current. I was disappointed to find little current but this soon improved and the exit was again more fun than the entry. I knew what to expect this time and just steered to enjoy a cave drift dive. We paused to recover Adams reel and then continued out. As this was a second 29 m dive we had run up some stops the first of which was at 17.5 m. We had to be careful not to allow the current to make us violate this. At one point I stopped after a narrow horizontal slot and Adam did not appear; it tuned out he had got caught just out of sight. Adam had to retrieve his primary reel and we did a mandatory stop at 11m before a further stop in the head pool at 6 m. At the end we had well over one third remaining. This was my best days diving so far. This dive totalled approximately 2200 feet.
Dive day 5 Friday 7th April 2006
We arrived at Madison Blue and noticed a huge flow from the cave and meet a local caver who said we needed to enter the narrow entrance as the main entrance had too much current.
I lead thought the small entrance and had to wait for a pair coming out and messed up belaying the primary line in. From then on this was an excellent dive and we turned on Adams thirds and had a strong current making coming out very easy. We meet another pair on their way in which did not happen much all week. Our safety stop was very pleasant in a pool with some surface swimmers, but care was needed not to get caught in the strong current which would have meant getting swept into the river.
Dive day 6 Saturday 8th April 2006
The Grand Traverse, this is 4800 ft dive from Orange Grove Sink to Peacock I via Challenge sink and Olsen sink both of which would be nearly impossible to get out from. We changed back to the twin 112 cu ft tanks for this as it takes about 90 minutes to complete and no one ever died from having too much gas. Apparently when this was first done it was a world record but that was a long time ago when equipment and techniques are not as they are now.
I lead and put in the primary from a tree in the head pool to the gold line. This is a long dive so it was important to have a good pace but not to tire ourselves out. My shins where aching from previous dives, so I modified my frog kick to minimise shin muscle use. The visibility was good and the passage large so we made good time. At Challenge you have to head up towards the surface before going down the other side, as with much of this week my ears and sinuses where giving some trouble. Between Challenge and Olsen the visibility is milkier despite having fewer divers passing through. This is the first time we had swum this section and the cave also has fewer signs of divers with no fin or hand marks. At Olsen you nearly break surface before heading down the other side. It is easy to see how you are getting on as there are markers every 100ft. For the last 200ft I slowed right down and made a slow ascent to the sink hole passing two divers coming in. We did a pleasant safety stop, before getting out and carrying those big tanks to the car. I had 120 Bar out of 240 remaining and felt it was not as tough as I had expected but am very glad to have done it.
I had to do a solo to retrieve my primary reel from Orange Grove Sink. I found out later that solo diving is strictly banned and was ticked off by the warden who then walked away and let me get on with it. After a brief trip into the cave I had a few pleasant minutes in the warm clear water and them emerged covered in green ﾒstuffﾓ from the surface of the head pool. This ﾒstuffﾓ was to cause me problems the next day.
We went to have a look at the entrance to Peacock II which is at the other end of the car park. There was an alligator there basking in the sun, that we where later told was about 7 foot long.
We also visited another site call Bonnet which is closed for diving as it has a 12 foot alligator, we did not see this one, but could not help but think about the guy who met one that he had inadvertently backed down a sink hole he was diving.
Day 7 Sunday 9th April 2006
The entrance to Jackson Blue must be one of the most famous in cave diving. A picture of it appears in many cave diving books and on the cover of several.
After safety drills on the side and entry into standing depth water, I swam to above the cave entrance and descended noticing a strong current and before I could think how much hard work this was going to be found I was getting as much water as air from my main reg. I switched to my spare and that was no better. It turned out the green ﾒstuffﾓ was strings of seeds from the trees around Orange Grove sink and it had somehow got lodged in the exhaust valves of both of my second stages. I managed to clear this by purging while blocking the mouth piece but it cost me 30 bar of gas.
I then got a major mask leak and was beginning to think this dive was jinxed but after fixing these problems, Adam lead in against a strong current. This is a huge cave with a flat bottom and very few hand holds for pull and glide which makes it a hard swim. There are sections that are only a few meters high but so wide you can hardly see the sides. I could not help but wonder what was holding the roof up. It was my turn to call thirds and the drift dive out was very relaxing. We had gone into stops so had to find a convenient rock to hold onto to do our first stop before doing our main stops near the entrance. There was a scooter course going on in the cave that day and that cave is the place to use one if you have the skills.
Day 7 Monday 10th April 2006
Hole in the Wall is few hundred meters down the lake from Jackson Blue and we had to hire a pontoon boat to reach it. The lake is only just deep enough and weed round the prop was a problem but we reached the platform which is nailed to trees coming out of the water. After tying the boat up we got ready and walked down the steps to look for the cave which was around the front of the boat. During the bubble checks I had a leak from one of my DIN wheels which Adam sorted out before we proceeded. As I was trying out a Salvo 21w HID light, Adam lead so he would get the benefit from it. This light was very bright and made Adams Sartek 10w HID look feeble and yellow. The visibility in this cave was by far the worst we had come across which meant being even more careful not to lose the line. There was very little flow and a very silty bottom which the large catfish stirred up when frightened by our lights. The lack of flow meant an easier swim in but also having to swim out which meant taking as long to swim out as in.
After getting fills we set of for Twin Caves which was going to our last dive of the trip. Another nice boat ride to another platform nailed to the trees before jumping in the find the cave which was a few meters out into the lake.
We planned to take this dive easy as after a tough weeks diving we both had aches and pains, out of the four VR3’s we took with us we where down to one each working, I had a primary regulator with inter-stage creep and my primary light had about 55 minutes of burn time remaining.
The cave had good visibility despite having some large cat fish. There was little current but lots of up and down sections and Adam started having ear trouble but was able to clear it, then we reached a split in the main line so we put in an arrow and followed what appeared to be the main line, this soon reached a vertical shaft which was about 6 meters straight down. Adam went down to the bottom but my ears chose this moment to not clear and I signalled time for home in my light beam. The exit was nice enough but Adam did have a few problems with his ears due to the up and don nature of the passage. Once on the surface Adam announced that was probably his last ever cave dive as family responsibilities mean he will no longer feel able to take time away from home.
Marianna is only 10 miles from the Alabama border so after paying the bill we had a three hour drive back to Lauraville. We got back just in time to get pizzas for dinner.
Day 8 Tuesday 11th April 2006
We decided not to dive on this last day and packed, tidied up the accommodation, returned our cylinders and paid our bills. After leaving at about mid day we arrived at the Hilton in Atlanta. Our room was on the 25th floor and had spectacular views of the city, and I especially enjoyed the fast glass lifts up the centre of the building. After a few very expensive beers in the hotel followed by a meal we went out for another night out in Atlanta. We where frisked at the first bar we went into, I thought that was a bad sign and suspect they wanted to make sure we ﾒhadﾓ guns, as I expect everyone else did. After a quick drink we found somewhere more pleasant to reflect on an excellent weeks cave diving.
Day 9 Wednesday 12th April 2006
We had some time to kill before catching the plane so visited the Body exhibition which was excellent and then had a few beers before catching the plane home. The flight home seemed longer than the one there, but then it always does.
Overall this was a very successful and enjoyable trip but there are some things the would-be cave diver might consider. The cave environment is very unforgiving; all the drills done in the sea and inland lakes only partly prepares you for the cave environment. Although squeezing through very tight restrictions is probably safer than doing the same in wrecks the thought of a major problem like a free flow while stuck in a tight squeeze in a current is truly terrifying. Doing a shutdown with hire tanks that are very stiff would take much longer than usual and having to exit from 2400 feet after having to shut down would be a worrying 45 minute swim.
Meeting an Alligator in the water would probably do little for your air consumption and in any case my cave course did not cover alligator wrestling.
My life insurance and income protection insurance has exclusions on cave diving, but a problem is more likely to cause death than incapacity, well apart from the alligator problem.