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!

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