Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I'm a 7 atmosphere girl now.

A little bit about my latest dive. I am a trained amateur, don't try this at home.

The day was magical and the butterflies were frolicking and my hubbie and I were eagerly driving though the wilderness known as Eagle's Nest. Bump, bump, bump through the 19 miles of packed limestone.

The only thing that stood in our way now was some soft sugar-sand. Though the road has been improved, there's 2 spots of deep sugar sand that make me feel like a young girl headed to a bar with a Fake ID....you hope you get in, but you are never really sure until you are past the bouncer.

We are the only folks there and get ready quickly. We each take our AL80 stage bottles (filled with 30% nitrox good to about 140') and our AL40 deco bottles (these are in the stories of all diving accidents where the unlucky diver always has "oxygen" tanks) filled with oxygen (can't take this deeper than 20'). We then gear up with our doubles, our HID lights, our 2 back-up lights, safety reels, and so much exposure protection I feel like the Pillsbury Doughboy. We are also sporting our new Nitek computers that will aid greatly in managing these multiple gasses. Did I mention that one should not try this at home? Seriously, only a suicidal fool would even think of doing this kind of dive on a single tank.

After a not-so-quick bubble check and the other customary checks & drills, we start our descent. The surface basin reeks of algae and mung. I am amazed that the fish can survive in such scum and I think back to when I had an aquarium and realize that it was CLEAN! Mike leads us to the "the chimney" and we drop our deco bottles close by. Well, we don't actually "drop" them...there are eye bolts drilled into a fallen log and we clip them to these. If you've never seen the chimney before, you've seen it before...unless you were born breech. Yes, that's exactly what it looks like, and its about 70 feet deep until we reach the ballroom. Its pretty neat going down the chimney, because you work on not hitting the sides with your fins or hands while trying to clear at the same time. Once past the chimney, it goes from the tight hole to a huge room....its probably as large as the Ice Palace and the water is so clear its invisible. You really do feel like you are flying through there. We don't have time to play now though and we rush down to the top of the mound to drop (uh, I mean carefully place) our stage bottles there. For the non-divers who might happen to still be reading this, we don't take that tank deeper because the oxygen content would be toxic at a deep depth. That bottle just waits there for us to return.

Mike leads us along the upstream line and its exhilarating to watch the depth gauge read deeper and deeper. At the same time, my brain is easing into extreme euphoria and I'm a little distracted by all the pretty rocks around us. If you've ever marveled at how tall the Sears Tower is while standing below it, its the same kind of awe. The scale in Eagle's Nest is quite grand. I never understood the allure of cave diving until I realized its often like visiting the Grand Canyon. Perhaps folks from Arizona or Utah aren't as impressed, but for Floridians who are accustomed to flat, flat, flat....its tremendously breath-taking.

We make it down to our planned 200'...well, I made it just a little past that ....to 209. We know we can't go any deeper using plain old air. At this moment, we are still a few classes away from being able to use a mixture of helium that contains less that 21% which would allow us to go deeper. We hang there until our turn time of 15 minutes and start heading back. We spend some time exploring the downstream as well until we hit our thirds (cave divers always dive using the rule of thirds: one third going in, one third to go out, one third for emergencies), then head back to the mound to pick up our stage bottles and switch to that gas.

After some time spent going up very, very slowly, we are ready to start our 50' deco stop. We have to do these one at a time, since we both can't be at the same depth in the chimney. I go first and keep an eye on Mike below me as well as our other buddy above us. After 3 minutes, we all move up another 10 feet; we keep repeating the 3 minute stops each 10 feet until we get to where we dropped our oxygen bottles. Now, the big switch to that and we settle down in the muck for about 20 minutes. Not a long deco at all....helped quite a bit by the nitrox we breathed on the way up.

All in all, it was the most exciting dive I've ever done. So much cooler than seeing the same pretty fish over and over again. I'm afraid that I am really becoming a deep-water junkie.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Intro to Cave

What a blast!!

Mike and I drove up to Luraville and checked in to the place my friend refers to as "The Scuba Hostel." We ran into a friend who had just arrived to Florida and would be joining us on our dives. Though we knew we'd be spending several days together, we couldn't resist catching up and stayed up until the wee hours.

After a quick breakfast in the luxurious Luraville Country Store (how nice to see the farmers leave after 8 and we got to sit at the big table!), we headed to Peacock I for our first official cave dive.

Paul was easy on us for the first dive and we were allowed to dive to 3rds in the direction of Olsen Sink. Since it was our first time in the system, we spent too much time looking around and reached thirds about 300' prior to Olsen. After turning the dive, Paul signaled for us to do the return trip on our weakest back-up lights. I had thought that it would suck on such a little light, but with unlimited visibility, the tiniest light gives you ample power to follow the line. Whew!

Our second dive of the day, Mike redefined the term goal-oriented and was going to reach Olsen or die trying. He set an Olympic pace, wearing us all out...and hit 3rds at the cavern entrance. He got a tiny scolding, but who's going to bicker about 30 PSI? The 300' we missed the day before were the most beautiful. I *loved* the keyhole that we had to swim through, and how cool to see the line disappear into the wall. I can't begin to describe how awesome it was to fit through that tiny opening. It seems silly to think that crawling through a hole was incredibly fun, but if youve ever watched children amuse themselves with a refrigerator box, it was like that, except that we are grown-ups.

The way back was interesting. Our first lights-out air share drill. Those who have done it can remember how spooky. I learned something during my first real experience with absolute total darkness. I never realized that I could in fact see the backs of my eyelids. It was pretty cool seeing the little red spots every time I blinked. On the other hand, I felt so sorry for the cave. We banged and bumped and generally sucked. Our gear was covered in little pebbles and rocks that had been ripped out of the cave due to our poor technique. The following day, Mike led during this drill and we made Olympic time again.

Our third day was the beginning of apprentice class and we head to Ginne Springs to do some drills in a high-flow system. I had read so much on the internet about how beautiful and pristine Ginne Springs was, but frankly our visit there in December didnt impress me at all. Clear water, so what? I have that in my swimming pool too. The little cavern in Ginnie Spring, called the ballroom was neat, but not cool enough to justify the expense. I really had not planned on ever returning. What changed my mind was reading an internet post about cave diving there, and I decided to give it another chance.

We lucked out that there was another instructor there who wanted to borrow Paul's oxygen analyzer and mentioned that he had a reel in place. Yeah! We didn't have to run one now! Our first dive was into Devils Eye.though a tiny bit of flow. My first impression of the cave was that everything was black. The rocks are covered with a mineral called goethite which makes the place look like theres been a fire there recently.
For some reason, this makes it particularly appealing to me. Yes, Im a pyro. We made it 750 back (just shy of Maple Leaf) and didnt have to do any drills (yeah!) We exited the water with shit-eating grins, all smiles and in love with the cave system here. After getting an almost perfect score on our exams, we came back for a second dive, and our first jump! We made the jump from Cornflakes to the Bone Tunnel, but didnt make it all the way to the Bone Room. All that heavy breathing.

All in all, it was a spectacular weekend and we are terribly eager to do the next step. I cant wait to take another cave-diving trip!