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May 1999 Vol. 25, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Boot Camp for Divers

Learning Cavern Diving in Florida

from the May, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If the cenotés of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula are the big leagues of cave and cavern diving, then northern Florida is triple-A ball, the place to learn the unique skills demanded by overhead environments. Without a certification from either the National Speleological Society’s Cave Diving Section or the National Association of Cave Divers, however, one’s access is limited to either a few select caverns or guided explorations, which is why I decided I’d become a caverncertified diver.

I arrived at Ginnie Springs, a privately-owned resort northwest of Gainesville that borders the Santa Fe River, on a 37° February morning. (Fortunately, I’d booked a motel in nearby High Springs rather than a campsite on the resort’s forested 200 acres.) After checking in at the dive center, I met my instructor, Tyler Moon, who’s in charge of the cavern/cave program.

The NSS-CDS cavern class runs two jam-packed days and includes lectures, equipment modification, land drills, and at least three dives in two different caverns. I opted to add two extra days for the Intro to Cave certification, as did the other three students. Tyler had us sign a sheaf of waivers, releases, and disclaimers, then, with boyish enthusiasm, he summarized cave geology and moved quickly to a lengthy discussion of everything that can (and has) gone wrong, the upshot of which was that nearly every fatality had been caused by someone’s failure to follow one of the basic rules we were to learn. He drilled us in the limits imposed on cavern divers: the rule of thirds (reserving at least twothirds of one’s starting air supply for exit); running a guideline from open water to the farthest point of the dive; penetrations no greater than 130 linear feet from the surface, always in view of sunlight; maximum depth of 70 feet; minimum 40-foot starting visibility; no decompression diving; and staying out of restrictions too tight for two divers to pass through together.

If the cenotés of the
Yucatan are the big
leagues of cave and
cavern diving, then
Florida is triple-A bal

Initially I resisted these warnings, recalling the endless times I had followed dive guides single-file through constricted reef passageways. My response was typical of many of the students who were experienced divers, but, like a stand-up comedian skilled at handling hecklers, Tyler had heard all the challenges and provided well-rehearsed comebacks to every objection. We were on his turf, all of us rookies despite our experience. After lunch, he inspected everyone’s equipment and dictated modifications. Since we were all going on to the intro cave course, we were set up with dual-valve tanks and redundant regulators (one with a seven-foot hose for air-sharing), and extra lights and reels. Tyler lightened our ballast and helped us rig drop weights that we would use to descend and ascend, but which would be tied off to our guidelines when we reached sufficient depth to achieve neutral buoyancy. We were to fine-tune our buoyancy by inhaling or exhaling.

Much time was spent replacing bulky items with more compact versions. Each modification triggered a trip into the dive shop and a new purchase or rental. The cave diver’s most critical piece of equipment, it seems, is an American Express Gold Card. At least the prices seemed competitive, which was a break considering that we were a captive market. (Don’t buy any specialized equipment ahead of time; they’re downright finicky about what brands, features, and sizes are acceptable.)

Nothing that I’d done in open water prepared me for the exotic speleological realm, and being forced to unlearn some of my cherished techniques and attitudes proved more difficult than negotiating the subterranean labyrinths. The classes were spread over four 10-hour days. Though they were more grueling mentally than physically, they still resembled boot camp. I did learn new techniques in buoyancy control, trim, gear streamlining, fin propulsion, and emergency procedures, but it wasn’t fun — at least not this specific course. I’d recommend it only for experienced, comfortable — and very determined — divers.

On Day 2, during three different dives, we performed basic safety drills (air sharing and equipment check), buoyancy control and trim, guideline and reel use, modified flutter kicks and other propulsion techniques, plus various emergency procedures, some of which we attempted while juggling lights or in zero visibility. I found it a struggle to remember the skills and still follow the dive plan, and the stress caused me to consume air much faster than usual. When I blew the zero-vis guideline drill, I felt like a dunce. Unlike most diving courses, this was one where failure was a real possibility.

Finally, however, Tyler let us all know we were ready to go to the Intro Cave level course with a new instructor, Rod Metcalfe. A grizzled veteran, Rod’s style was more folksy than Tyler’s, but just as demanding. Taking in the paraphernalia hanging off or tucked into my BC, he scoffed, “you look like a garage sale” and rearranged the merchandise. He was amiable but, like a drill instructor, seemed intent on breaking down any ego-resistance we might have to unlearning old behaviors.

That afternoon Rod took us to a cave system inside Ginnie Springs, where we penetrated two interconnected tunnels, doing even more demanding versions of the skills we had learned in the cavern course. At Devil’s Eye we dropped 20 feet down a limestone shaft, bucking a 4-5 knot outflow, the strongest current I’d ever swam against. Leveling out, I pulled myself along with my left hand, the primary reel and a light in my right hand, trying to keep the line taut and away from other divers while also keeping track of my air consumption and buoyancy.

I rode the current back from a depth of 66 feet, fighting to slow myself while reeling in the line. Though I wasn’t a pretty picture, I had things under control until I tried to undo the line we’d tied off at our starting point. It got hopelessly snarled, and Rod had to finish the job for me. That dunce cap was growing taller and taller. I spent the evening finishing take-home exams for both the classes.

The next morning, as we drove an hour to Peacock Springs State Recreation Area, my stomach was roiling. Was it nerves or the after-effect of my grits-andgrease breakfast at a High Springs café, where the motto seemed to be “nothing healthy”?

Peacock Springs is located in a remote area off the Suwannee River and is a more primitive dayuse park than Ginnie Springs. We made two dives there, performing a lost buddy drill and then a lights-out air-sharing exercise from 300 feet back in Peanut Tunnel. After pointed critiques by Rod (whose D.I. approach didn’t include positive reinforcement as a teaching tool), we headed back to Ginnie Springs to return our gear by 7:00 p.m. and then await our final personal evaluations. We were not a cocky bunch (Intro Cave failure rates at Ginnie Springs can run as high as 25%- 40%, depending on the instructor). We were tired, hungry, and brain-fried, and most of us agreed that we wouldn’t be surprised if we failed.

Being the last one called for review increased my anxiety level. Rod recapped his earlier criticism, then said he was going to pass me by what sounded like the slimmest of margins. I walked out of the classroom feeling more drained than any time since college finals.

Armed with my new skills, I’m looking forward to exploring those legendary Yucatan cenotés. Still, even if I never enter another cavern, I’ll carry away some important pluses from this training, including the humility of knowing that, despite my decades of underwater experience, I’ve always got more to learn. I’m not in the big leagues yet.

If You Go The Cavern and Intro Cave classes are $199 each, including air, manual, admission to the resort, and NSS certification card. Gear modification or rental is not included. (Four more days of training are required for full cave certification; they discourage taking all eight days at once, so you’ll need to schedule a repeat visit.) ....Other activities include swimming, snorkeling, tubing, canoeing, nature hikes, volleyball, and camping. For info call (904) 454-2202, Day rate for divers is $24; tanks are $8/day, weight belts $3. For other certification sites, contact either the NSS/CDS (850-536-0351, or the National Association of Cave Divers (352-495- NACD or hotel rooms run $45-65/night (Days Inn, Holiday Inn Express). Expect a lot of fried foods, some great barbecue. Tampa is just a couple of hours away.

— D. L.

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