I’ve been interested in caves for a little while now, but I don’t know how I feel about being underwater, inside a cave, hundreds of meters away from any form of natural environment.
I was chatting with GS about it, and mentioned my interest in doing a cavern course, and he suggested heading down to Florida and do it during the GUE conference at the end of October.
I contacted the Keiren’s (Lauren and Jonathan) about setting up a Cavern and Intro to Cave course on either side of the conference weekend. Fortunately, they were available to do a cavern course before the conference, but with DEMA the week after, they couldn’t do an Into to Cave course with prior commitments of DEMA.
They suggested getting a hold of Jonathan Bernot to do my Intro to Cave afterwards, and he was more than willing to help out in that regard.
I was coming off a stretch of work out of town and had a few hours to prep for an early morning departure to my favourite airport (IAH if you haven’t already guessed), and had a wicked case of a stomach bug …. so much for real life plans …. so I gathered what I could in the few hours in the morning and hopped that I didn’t forget anything!
Leaving Calgary at 4am in the morning, I was comfortable walking in my shorts, T-Shirt and flip flops to the airport.
The travel and layover in Houston wasn’t anything special, and having spent so much time there, I knew where to hang out and charge the phones back up after the flight.
Jacksonville was a different matter, although not difficult. My rental car was already waiting for me and had plenty of space for a few divers worth of tanks and gear.
Luckily, I was smart enough to grab my GPS out of my car before I left (I have a habit of forgetting items in MY car before a trip), as there wasn’t much of available wifi that I could find around to navigate to our lodging the for the week+ in Lake City.
I got in, unpacked a little, did some grocery shopping and then headed to Gainesville airport to pick up NB
The next morning was bright and early down at the most awesome, Extreme Exposure for NB to go diving, and for me to start my Cavern course with Jon & Lauren and my teammate Brett.
We started off the morning with introductions and some other conversations, overviews of what cavern and lines are, then headed out to the back lot to start the many land drills of laying out line.
A quick and delicious lunch and back into the field for low viz line work (i.e. blackout masks). It was quite fun, and had some challenges of navigating back with some added navigational obstacles thrown in.
Later that afternoon, one of the neighbours popped by asking a few questions, as he has been seeing many people doing what we do in this field, and thought it was some really weird religious cult. To be truthful, it kind of is 😛
After that we headed over to famed Ginnie Springs to get some in water work done outside of the Ballroom.
That night, most of us ended up at Great Outdoors restaurant down the street in High Springs (this would soon come to be the second home away from home, away from home, away from diving)
Now, remember when I said that I left Calgary in shorts, flip flops at 4am … well this is not the Florida you may have been thinking of. About an hour before the sun sets, it gets COLD …. not at all what I was expecting, bringing a second change of clothes just for the evening freeze!
Day two started us off over at Blue Grotto to do some work in and around the cavern. Some more skill overviews and land drills, then we hit the water for 3 dives, covering basic skills, laying line, and starting working on failures on the line.
It was a very productive day, a little chilly as I had a very slow leak in a wrist seal and was very cold after the end of the third dive.
Another evening catching up and meeting more GUE and cave folk at the GO, including the Todd Kincaid and family!
Day three was spent at Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park, where we further took the prior days in water skills into the cavern there.
There were some funny moments of disastrous proportions (well, not really that bad, but I couldn’t help but think of what the other divers may have though what was going on at the time). A quick regroup and a second attempt and we were good to go.
That afternoon concluded the Cavern course with both Brett and I passing!
The evening was the start of the conference with a social at El Patio, a mexican restaurant. While the intent of all parties was good, the execution was pretty flawed for the massive flock of cave divers descending into the outdoor patio space. Everyone had their spirits and Atta boy attitudes and made a fun evening of the event with more of the socializing than the eating.
Saturday was the day of the conference held at the UF campus in Gainesville (Go Gators!). It was filled with many great talks throughout the day, along with another dinner social on site. Quite a few highlights for me was listening to John Kendall with his riveting 3D Photogrametry talk, Will Winram talking about tagging and free diving with sharks (incl. Great Whites off of Guadeloupe!), Andy Pitkin talking about exploring and connecting Weekee Wachee with Twin Dee’s!
The Sunday of the conference was much less informal (Richard wasn’t in his suit), so we all gathered around EE to do some workshops, lectures and just go diving!
Anton and myself headed over to Ginnie Springs for some in water tuneup sessions with David Watson in the morning, back to EE for some BBQ lunch, then I headed over to Halcyon for an informal and very informative chat with Richard Lundgren about GUE and Rebreathers.
Afterwards, Orie gave the lot of us that were straggling around a tour of the coveted Halcyon factory, adding quite of value to why things may seem like they cost so much (the “H” Tax as some misinformed call it).
That night, we headed down the road to a gorgeous farm for drinks and dinner in Alachua.
Monday morning came quick, and I was off to Intro to Cave course with Jonathan Bernot over at Cave Country Dive Shop. I had an instructor intern as a partner, as well as another instructor intern as another set of eyes (both in sidemount) along with Jon to keep a eye out for advise and course correction.
We started the day going over logistics, and picking up discussions left off at the cavern level, then headed over to Ginnie Springs to go a cave dive.
We did 2 dives in the Eye at Ginnie, some parts were graceful (so I may have imagined), while the rest was probably a “how not to do it” video series if there was CCTV (but luckily, most everything witnessed was not because of me!)
Afterwards, we filled tanks back up, another quick lecture and then headed in through the Ear.
The end of the day, I made it through to somewhere in the cave, but I felt the cave dove me, and I didn’t dive the cave (as I feel most people end up the first time there, on a course).
That night, most of the GUE-BC folk were heading back home the next morning, so they hosted a lovely BBQ and fire at their house that evening. Some were quite surprised to find out that my beard was not a fashion statement (i.e. ‘Me make fire, eat steak’)
The next morning, we headed out to Madision Blue Springs for the last day of Intro to Cave. A quick overview, some more land drills and away we went, running line through the Rabbit Hole and made our way inside.
We hit Half Hitch restriction right around my turn pressure and headed back out, along with the famed “you never see the way out of a cave on a course” routine that has been going on since day one. Lost line was the skill of the day.
I found it fairly easy (even though Jon put me in a place where the line is a little tricky to find next to a ledge), but the flow had other ideas as I tried to stay stable tying my safety line to something. It pushed me around, but being aware of the flow, I knew where the line should be, and where my exit is.
Another few dives, then we did a dive for fun! Imagine that! We managed and poked through the restriction and turned around on that last dive … not too bad for diving on 1/6ths!
That night, Nick was leaving, so we went out for some BBQ to celebrate our accomplishments of the week.
My last day, I went cave diving, where nothing is supposed to go wrong 😛
Nothing did go wrong. I met up with a diver from SF, and we had two great dives over at Peacock Springs on both Peanut and Olsen lines.
We managed to nearly make it to the Peanut Restriction, turning the dive on time (not gas) and had a great 60 minute dive. Heading back to the benches for some SI, we ran into Kiril, and chatted a little and decided to head down the Olsen line.
Having not done this route before, I was a little unnerved about seeing the arrows change direction to the Olsen exit, rather than our exit, so we turned the dive a little early.
However, on the way in, around Pothole, there was a fish carcass on the floor, with a large crawfish, and some very itty bitty crawfish around it.
I nearly didn’t see it, unless I looked at my SPG at that moment. On the way back, we took some footage of the animal bones on display, and the carcass, and looked for the crawfish which seemed to have had their daily fill of fresh food.
All in all, a fantastic long week in Florida.
Lots of new people, dive buddies and stories to entertain and enjoy for years to come!
9 dives, 295min in water (4:55h)
6 dives, 275min in water (4:35h)
18 dives, 715min in water (11:57h)