Monday, November 20, 2017

China Creek 18/11/2017

Two years ago, Joakim Hjelm organized a epic camping trip to China Creek in the fall. Some called the trip crazy, because fall time on Vancouver Island meant 10 degrees and rain, but that's the time of the best diving in BC. This time it would prove to be even more awesome!

It was a fun expedition, feeling like you really were getting off the beaten track. The drive in over the dirt logging road was a pothole fest with plenty of bumps and big trucks. It felt a bit like the road to Nomash River Cave. However the difference was that you could be in town in 20 minutes rather than an hour and a half.

Jo arranged for the camp ground to be opened for us as it was normally closed in winter. My fun experience was with the gate. When Heather and I arrived, it looked closed and locked. It took a bit of coordination over chat for me to realize that the lock was just partially on. It was kind of funny, and we did get in.

Most people arrived the Friday night. They had a great find in a covered event area complete with concrete fire pit. We had no idea such an area existed and would definitely use it again.

The problem usually was with the wind and rain. Portable event tents had been used before to keep the rain off, but they were difficult to secure against wind. This structure was large and sturdy, with 8 picnic tables inside and the large fire pit. With the fire going it was very comfortable. You could even drive up to it, gear up completely and then drive over to the beach. Pretty sweet!

The full roster was Jo, Julie, Jim, Tori, Jeff, Francoise, Bridgette, little Pierre, and Hunter (Tori's nephew). Heather and I were there for Saturday only. Jo and Julie got some great group pictures.

Julie showing off breakfast.

Tori, little Pierre, and Jim playing cars.

Bridgette, Jeff and Francoise.

Tori getting beaten at cards by Hunter and Julie.

Even the bathrooms (complete with showers) were heated. The staff went the extra mile to put in a little portable space heater. You could even rinse your gear with the taps and hoses.

On Saturday morning we did the first dives. Everyone had a great time socializing while leisurely gearing up.

There was some miscommunication on which camp site to meet at for the dive, and this was something to improve on next time. Part of one team went to the usual location of site 42, while the other teams went directly to the area near the rock wall. Oops!

Bridgette had a hole in her dry suit so had to abort her dive. This left the dive teams of Jim and Jo (doing a tech dive with scooters to check out how far the rock wall went), Jeff and Francoise doing photos, and myself and Heather doing the same.

As usual the surface layer was cold water runoff from the creek, but it was only 9 degrees! It did make for a very distinct and cool halocline as if you look carefully in this short video clip.

The visibility was good, but not as great as the West side of Vancouver island could be. I estimated it as easily 18 meters or 60 feet. Heather and I were up at 12 meters and could easily see Jim and Jo scootering below us, and they were at 30 meters at that point.

On our swim out, we almost missed the log tender wreck at 12 meters. I'm not sure how, since when I turned around it was right there. Alas no juvenile wolf eel was living in it this time. Heather got quite a few good pictures. Here was a very nice Leafy Hornmouth.

We happened on many pretty swimming scallops. One swam for it's life. I'd never seen one swim straight up so fast before.

We found the telephone booth and I tried to make a call. Surprisingly, I only heard bubbles.

There were many brown Rockfish and a few Black Rockfish too. Not something that we saw on the Vancouver side. Kelp Greenlings, large Ling Cod, Painted Greenlings, and sea stars rounded out the easiest to spot life.

There were several of these strange solitary tunicates, which turned out to be Glassy Sea Squirts. Pretty cool!

Heather got a neat picture of these Orange Ball Sponges, which looked like they just popped out of a volcano. I certainly didn't remember seeing them in other areas.

The best encounter was the Grunt Sculpin that Heather found. I had been looking at a sea star,  and was quite surprised when she gestured very animatedly at it. Right there was a big Grunt Sculpin, sitting very still trying not to be noticed. It certainly fooled me!

Just after the Grunt Sculpin was a rock crack filled with a film of white substance. It wasn't stringy, but more like a layer of white mold or fungus. I emailed the Vancouver Aquarium about it, and they weren't quite sure, thinking it was some kind of decay. I wish I had gotten some video of it, but I had seen something like it before. I'd keep investigating.

In the shallows was a very pretty Fried Egg Jellyfish, just swimming along lazily.

Jim and Jo reported that there were three fishing nets at about 33 meters, which would make good clean up targets for a future dive. Francoise and Jeff said they saw nothing of particular note, but had a good dive.

Back at camp, Julie, Bridgett and Tori had little Pierre and Hunter well in hand, and the fire was blazing. It was a welcome opportunity for us divers to warm up! Jo had a suit leak so was very wet and cold. There was even time to put together a gingerbread house. Now that was camping in style!

Heather and I left the intrepid campers that afternoon, as we were staying in Parksville. I heard from Jo later that they weren't able to do any more diving due to weather. Still, the fire and camping and socializing sure was fun. And the dives we did get in were excellent. I couldn't wait for next year!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

GUE Conference Florida 27-29/10/2017

My trip to Florida wasn't just to dive the amazing caves that I had only read about. It was also to attend the GUE Conference for 2017, hosted in High Springs. It was basically a four day event spread out over Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

On Friday I signed up for a field trip with Todd Kincaid and his wife Kristie. Their daughter Ginnie was along too, with several other kids. I met a lot of new friends: Dianna and Travis, Rick, Joe Hoyt (who worked with Todd), Tess (who would be my canoe buddy), Bachari (the only GUE diver in Senegal), and many others. There were two vans with about 18 people or so, it was quite a group. Todd's goal was to give us an overview of the interesting hydrogeology of the Santa Fe River basin. It was way more fun that than sounds!

The first place we visited was Paynes Prairie. This was a beautiful park with trails, boardwalks and the Alachua Sink. Here we learned that part of Gainseville used to be called Hogtown (not a very auspicious name). Alachua Sink was temporarily blocked and the basin filled up, and from 1871 to 1891 it had enough water that steamboats were able to sail on it. Interesting stuff! With the hurricane activity this year the water level was quite high. It made for some very picturesque photos. Some of the boardwalks were submerged.

We also got our fist view of a gator here. It was a long way off, so the picture was not the best. But it was still exciting!

Here was a great shot of our group, listening to Todd talk about the area.

The next stop was Devil's Millhopper. Unfortunately the stairs were damaged during the hurricane so we couldn't go down. But Todd explained how the sink hole let water pass from one geological layer to another, which many scientists back in the day thought impossible. Nick asked what the large seed-like nuts we saw on the ground were and Todd said "Well it's not a rock, I'm a geologist that's the best I can do!". Pretty funny. Fortunately a park sign identifying the Swamp Chestnut Oak was nearby, so mystery solved.

We made a stop at the Santa Fe River Sink, where nearly 900 million gallons of water disappeared into the ground. This picture did not really capture that, but you could definitely see that the river ended.

Todd explained that one of the biggest threats to the water systems of Florida was nitrification. Waste water from sewage, livestock and agricultural operations was treated but no nitrates were removed. There was evidence that normal nitrate levels in the rivers should be 0.1 or even 0.01 parts per million. But today these levels have ballooned to 10, 20, 50 and even 100 ppm. Not only were increased nitrate levels harmful to humans (especially children and the elderly), it caused a host of feedback issues. Algae blooms leading to reduced oxygen, and the resulting dead remnants smothering once clean sandy bottoms, and the darkening of cave walls. The picture was not completely dire. If the nitrates were removed, the system should clear itself out in 10 to 15 years. But treatment mechanisms were very expensive. The example Todd gave was around several billion dollars for a city the size of Gainseville, which was only about 125,000 people. Imagine a city the size of Miami. The other unfortunate thing was to watch trash get sucked down into the sink system, which you could actually see it happening from where we were standing.

Todd explained that the Santa Fe River Sink had been instrumental in changing prevailing beliefs of how water travelled underground. It used to be thought that underground water was thousands of years old, flowed extremely slowly, and cave systems had little effect. The Santa Fe Sink was used to demonstrate completely the opposite. A good step forward, but more always needed to be done.

After a picnic lunch, we were off on the second leg of the tour: canoeing down the Santa Fe River to visit some of the springs along the way. We put in at the 27 Bridge, and would paddle all the way down to Ginnie Springs. I don't have any pictures from this leg of the trip as I left my phone behind in case we took a dunk in the river. It had been a long time since I had been canoeing! Thankfully, my canoe buddy Tess helped me out.

The first spring we visited was Poe Spring. Like I mentioned, I didn't have a camera, so the image below is not mine, and is from Pintrest.

We stopped and everyone got out of our canoes. We had our first "accident" where Fiona and Mike flipped their canoe in the shallows. Whoops! Mike got a good dunking, and Tess caught a big splash too. Good thing it was nice weather! Todd talked about Poe Springs when he was a kid. Evidence of the nitrification was quite noticable now. It used to be pristine and white. Most of us took the opportunity to do a bit of free diving to check out the spring outflow. It was very cool. The second accident was when Todd jumped in to take pictures of the spring flow for Project Baseline. Too bad he forgot to take his phone out of his pocket. Hope it dried out Todd!

The next couple of springs were cool too. Lily Spring was famous for a local named Naked Ed. He wasn't home when we visited, so we didn't meet him (or see him!). But the Great Outdoors restaurant near Extreme Exposure did sell a Naked Ed beer.

My favorite was Blue Spring. It was hard to describe just how blue the water was there. It was closed due to hurricane damage, but we were still able to paddle in to see it. Again, this was not my picture, and it doesn't really do the spring justice, but it does give an idea just how pretty it was.

Ginnie Spring was the last stop. It looked quite different coming in from the river rather than going in diving. Funny enough our flotilla of about 8 GUE canoes almost ran right over top of a dive team surfacing from the Ear. There was a reason our dive training included situational awareness! Too bad we weren't as good in canoes. Todd knew the two Divers and we had a good laugh when they came over.

Nick Bowman and Joe Hoyt did a good deed by salvaging several bags of trash that had been thrown in the river. It wasn't pleasant, but they did it. Nice work!

The field trip was amazing, but much longer than any of us anticipated so we were all looking forward to dinner that evening. A social was hosted at El Patio near Extreme Exposure. It was incredible just how many people had come to the conference! This was only a partial picture.

Saturday was the first conference day hosted at Florida University in Gainseville. The campus was modern and large. Jim, Joe and I helped Orie carry up some maniquins for the Halcyon display. I couldn't resist taking a funny picture of Joe.

Here was a panorama shot before the talks started. Look at all those people!

Richard Lundgren did a great and funny presentation on an old Roman naval battle (the Battle of Egadi) and how GUE teams recovered some naval rams. Dr David Doolette did a talk on the Helium penalty (which many of us actually stayed awake for!). Andy Pitkin and Matt Vinzant did a really interesting presentation on the Weekie Wachee Cave with an entry that made the Ear at Ginnie Springs seem like a cake-walk. The pay off after that was the rooms inside which were amazingly huge and beautiful. Todd talked about Project Baseline using an excellent pre-done video to keep on track. Joe Hoyt spoke on U-576 and the Bluefields wreck discoveries off Carolina. Finally, John Kendall and Richard Lundgren talked about photogrammetry. John made a really funny joke at Guy Shockey's expense during the presentation that will forever live on in history. Talk to someone who attended the Conference for details!

All the information was superb, and it was followed by break out sessions with more detailed talks. Part of the photogrammetry presentation had a 3-D component, and we got a really funny picture of everyone in the old-style glasses. Looking good Nick, Jen, Jo, and Jim!

I went to the Project Baseline session where we watched the five winning videos from those submitted during the year from various projects. Of course my favorite was Project Baseline Saanich Inlet produced by Jo Hjelm, but the Bonaire video was great too. I also attended William Winram's free-diving tips presentation. William did a great talk in the main conference about freediving with great white sharks too. The most amusing tip I got out of it was using a scuba mask and sucking in the air from it through your nose when you needed it. I never even thought of that! The last session was on photogrammetry and I got a lot of tips from that as well. The three biggest ones were: strobes don't work, ambient light was not your friend, and start small. I also learned that John was a Terry Pratchett fan, as he made several jokes about "magic imps in boxes".

Another dinner social took place that evening which was a good thing, because everyone was ravenous. Like the previous night, much fun, discussion and new friends were made.

Sunday morning brought frost! No one told me that Northern Florida could be so cold. It was quite funny.

For Sunday, there were hands-on sessions. I decided to go with Brad to do some skill tweaking in the water at Ginnie Springs. Brad hammed it up a bit with this picture.

Five other divers joined us along with David Watson, a GUE instructor from the California area. We used the Ballroom area at Ginnie for our practice. It was pretty neat. Afterwards we checked out the cavern area, which was small but fun. It was an informative morning, and I got some good tips on back-kicks and propulsion. Ginnie was beautiful as always.

The last session of the day was Project Baseline and geotagging. This was put on by Todd and Beto from BAUE (Bay Area Underwater Explorers). Todd discussed what data Project Baseline needed, and the challenges going forward. The biggest ones were funding, and consistency of data. To help consistency, the idea of geotagging submitted photos was discussed. This was where Beto talked about a tube-like device he built from inexpensive parts, that could hold a GPS device and be deployed from underwater. When it broke the surface, it would get a GPS fix. Then these fixes could be automatically added to pictures taken, if the clocks were in synch.

It was a simple and effective method. GPS doesn't work underwater, and is a big problem. We did some "mock" dives out in the backyard, and here are some of the teams taking photos and using the device.

And here Todd got surprised to be a geotagged subject.

On the whole, I got more than I could have imagined out of the conference. The number of new friends and connections I made, along with the diving, the experiences and new information made it just amazing. I would recommend any GUE member attend at least once! You would not regret it.

On my last day, I just put my feet up. It had been a big week.

And the final night we held an impromptu barbecue in our back yard.

All good things come to an end. When I got back home to Vancouver BC, I was greeted by snow on the mountains! Winter had started when I had been gone.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Florida Cave Diving 22-26/10/2017

I attended the GUE Conference in Florida for the first time this year. I'll lead with my video compilation of the diving portion, just in case you want to stop here!

Like many others I arrived a few days early to do some cave diving. Jim Dixon and Joakim Hjelm also arrived along with me. I had never dove caves in Florida, and was quite excited. Florida was pretty much the "de facto" home of cave diving, producing such explorers like Sheck Exley, and leading to the formation of GUE itself.

After a long day and night of flying and then driving, we arrived in High Springs. Google maps took us on some interesting routes! Meredith Tanquay helped put us up. This would be our home for over a week.

The back had a nice barbecue and fire pit. Pretty sweet!

Monday was the first day of diving. However on the night we arrived, we had a funny experience with ghosts in the TV. At about 6:30 am the TV came on super loud. Jim and I thought that our room-mates had decided to turn it on, and had been somewhat inconsiderate leaving it on when they left. Later that morning, after we turned the TV off, it came on by itself! We found out from Rob and Randy that they had not turned the TV on at all. Florida Gremlins I guess, and a funny story. We had been too tired to get up and say anything. Needless to say, I unplugged the TV for the rest of the trip. Who needed TV when there was so much else to do!

On our first day of diving in Florida, we checked in with Extreme Exposure, picked up cylinders and went for a checkout dive at Wes Skiles Park. It was an hour drive and there were several torrential downpours on the way. We all hoped it would not continue, and there were a few comments about possible lightning. Could you get hit by lightning in an underwater cave? It seemed highly unlikely...

At Wes Skiles Park, we paid our fee and parked. Then I got to check off two things from my bucket list: first dive in a Florida cave, and meeting Jarrod Jablonski (who just happened to be there teaching a class). Mark Messersmith, one of my cave instructors was there too, as was Alex Adolfi and some Seattle folks doing their Cave 1. It was a great reunion. Here was Jo, Alex, Jim and Francesco, happy to see each other.

We had also met German from Bonaire (aka Mister G). Since he was Cave 1 like me, I ended up diving for the rest of the week with him. Here were two pictures, Jim, Jo and Mister G and myself. Great photos!

The dive site was not what I expected. Dark tannic water and carpets of duck weed. Later we realized that we actually dove Orange Grove instead of our planned Peacock cave. Whoops. There were even signs everywhere which I guess we missed somehow. It looked like I was going to be diving in a pond back in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was not at all like the crystal waters I had expected (however, that would soon change).

The weather all week was perfect. It wasn't too hot at all (in fact many days it was quite cool). But Jim and Jo still did take the opportunity to cool off.

Orange Grove was very interesting. I had never dove in such dark tannic water before. It was a pretty vertical descent in, dark, and certainly challenging but lots of fun. Once inside, the tannic water disappeared and was replaced with crystal clear water. The cave was beautiful with little flow. Now we were talking!

Once out of the water (despite our best efforts) our gear was covered in duckweed. I was not expecting to have to rinse off after diving in fresh water!

After fills and some food, we got orientated to a supermarket, and got a good nights sleep. Tuesday dawned misty and quite cool. I was glad I brought my jacket. Across from us was a field full of cows.

We hooked up with Mister G again and went back to Wes Skiles Park to dive the correct cave, Peacock. Heissan Chak from Ontario joined our Cave 1 team as well. After diving with us, he thought Mister G and I had been diving together for years, yet we'd only met the other day. It was a true testament to standardization and robust training. You could get into the water with any GUE diver and expect to work well. And have fun!

This was my first encounter with an alligator warning sign.

And there was a monument to Sheck Exley, Cave Diver #1. He did a lot of his diving at Peacock.

Jim and Jo, ready to get diving!

We did two dives on the two lines of Peacock. Olsen Sink line was large and quite open, but Peanut Tunnel was my favorite. There was a very cool squashed section that was fun to navigate. The entry was more like what I had expected. Clear water, little flow, and a quick run to either line.

There was a worker in the pool putting in a water level measuring device for SAVE (Springs and Aquifer Volunteer Efforts). On our second dive, we encountered quite a lot of silt rolling down from the entrance as a result of this work. It was brief, but unexpected. I don't think I'd ever seen a silt cloud like it before. We spent some time talking to the guy, it was very informative.

After his dive, Jo wanted to do a weight check. With the heavy steel double cylinders we were using, along with few undergarments, this made us quite heavy and he wanted to check by how much. I got a pretty cool picture of him draining down his cylinders. Jim and I both agreed that more lofty undergarments were needed next time. Others had recommended a 200 gram thinsulate garment, which just seemed overkill to me. But it really looked like you needed the extra "loft". I was using a base layer along with fleece booties and a thinsulate vest, along with neutral fins and an aluminum back-plate. I figured I was still probably 5 pounds negative. I certainly was glad I didn't bring a steel plate!

Speaking of doubles, I had to take a picture of the huge 20 liter double cylinders at Extreme Exposure. I never thought such things existed. They weren't all that much heavier than a set of 16 liter doubles, but they still seemed massive.

Wednesday we went to Madison Blue. Getting there was a bit of a challenge, as I made a wrong turn (Google is not always your friend!). Madison Blue was a higher flow cave and it was more of a challenge to get inside. You can see the water flow from this picture.

You could see how it got its name from this picture! Much different from Orange Grove.

We had two dive teams: Kees, Jim and Jo, and Nick, Mister G and myself. When we got in the water and started fining into the current looking for the mainline we found it right there. But, we had already started running our primary line so we just finished tying in with that. Jim made a better call just skipping running a primary since the mainline started in the daylight zone. It paid to be observant. Madison Blue sure didn't disappoint, it was a very pretty cave. The flow wasn't too bad either, if you followed some of the tips to stay up and out of it.

After the dive, Nick and I did some skills. We ran a line and made a T intersection for fun. One of the exiting dive teams got a bit confused by what we were doing, thinking we were "lost". Once we explained with a few hand signals that we were practicing, all was well. We finished a very successful day of diving with a fist bump.

We found time to visit the Halcyon gear manufacturing facility and met Orie, who showed us around a bit. Jo and Kees needed to pick up some demo gear, but I couldn't resist snapping a picture of them leaving the candy store like bandits.

Thursday was the big one: Ginnie Springs and true high flow. As expected, there were several dive teams there, as it was a very popular spot. There weren't just divers, and many people swam in the crystal waters and enjoyed camping, snorkeling and paddling.

The morning was gorgeous, with a thin mist on the Santa Fe River.

You could see the difference in the dark tannic waters of the Santa Fe on the right, and the crystal blue waters of Ginnie Springs to the left.

People weren't the only ones enjoying the park. Many squirrels were looking for hand outs...

 Jo, Jim, and Kees planned a Cave 2 dive. Poor Kees stayed right in the flow and got a headache from all the exertion. Jim asked him why he didn't take the suggestions of getting up near the ceiling, and he said with all the information overload he just plain forgot. Poor Kees. They looked pretty happy after the dive though!

Alex Adolfi and crew were there too, doing their first set of official cave 1 dives after passing their course.

Mister G, Nick and I did two dives into the Eye, then two into the Ear. The Eye entry was not as bad as I thought. The Ear was a challenge. All the tips people told me did not truly prepare me for how different high flow was. Going in relatively vertical, fighting the flow, and making line tie offs was tough to do. There were a lot of lines in already making it even more complicated. I did finally manage to get a tie-in to the main line. Our dive lasted only 15 minutes as all my gas had been spent putting in the line! 50 bar had gone by very quickly. But I took heart in that this was pretty much normal for a first attempt. The dark tannic water of the Santa Fe River made for a surreal entry as well. Here was a different dive team entering the Ear.

And another shot looking down into the Ear.

I didn't get any images from inside the Ear out bit I did get outside in. Randy got a classic image from inside looking up and out.

On the way out of the Ear, another team of five divers came in and it was a bit of a mess. However, we waited off to the side while they got cleaned up and we got past them. Coming up out of the Ear was interesting too. I finally understood what Jim was saying about the log at 6 meters. Resting on top of that log out of the flow was perfect.

After an initial adjustment phase to the flow, Ginnie was a lot of fun. With all the tips I found it intuitive to look for the areas protected from flow, and move hand over hand when not. The hand over hand part was a lot like underwater rock climbing.

Here was a good group picture of many of the GUE divers there.

And a really cool picture looking down into the Little Devil. It was very tight and from what I understood: side-mount territory.

In the shallows, schools of fish teemed, and very cool river plants abounded. It really was magical.

Ginnie Springs pretty much wrapped up my diving adventures. For the rest of the trip, I attended the GUE Conference for 2017. I'll sum up all that in a separate article. Until then!