Floridian Caves

By: Jon F

Having been to Borneo and dived Jacques Cousteau’s famed Turtle Tomb on the island of Sipidan, the stage had been set for me to pursue a new passion.....Cave Diving.

The mere mention of these two words in conversation with normal/sane mortals tends to invoke a response of shock and horror followed by questions like, Are you mad? And, what on earth would possess you to do that? While it's true that around only one percent of the entire dive population tend to become active cave divers, this does not necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with them mentally or emotionally (lurking around in small dark places with limited air supply, set aside).

For me the attraction is that this sport really is a pure form of adventure and exploration. Unlike some of the contributors on our site, I am only at the start of my cave diving exploits. Cave diving takes the upmost commitment, concentration and team work. The rewards for the intrepid sub aqua  speleologist is a visitors pass from mother nature, granting you access to places practically untrodden and un-dived  by fellow man.

My course was booked with Mr “Dive Rite”, Lammar Hires himself, who I am very pleased to say has become a good  friend and now contributes to Planet H2O Online Magazine. We started the course at Gennie Springs, North Florida, just outside the town of High Springs. This area is one of the historical land marks in cave diving. The true greats that established the sport, most of them working or diving with Lamar, have at some point in time been based, or are still based here.  Unfortunately  some of the great names that Lamar has worked with have paid the ultimate price for their exploits in human exploration. This really is a sport that when things go wrong they tend to go wrong in an unforgiving way. For this reason a large focus of the full cave course is about increasing your survivability as an Individual, and as a dive team.

I had been planning this trip for a year, Unfortunately plans were dashed when Hurricane Debbie flooded most of Lake City and destroyed the conditions in the cave systems we would be diving. This of course was bad luck for me, and nothing compared to the problems that the local population were having in the floods, our thoughts and best wishes for a speedy return to normality go out to them.

My personal training and preparation prior to the course involved a physical training regime in the UAE for around six months prior to going. I built into this plan a visit to TEKCamp 2012 based at Vobster Quay, Somerset, UK, (see Dive Life page 7, article by Tim Clements, and of course follow the TEKCamp links contained in these pages). I was lucky enough to take part in some line laying drills on a 70min dive with the legendary Phil Short, extreme cave diver, and dive trainer to the Hollywood film Sanctum. Phil is also the director of training for IANTD UK. I also spent some time with Jim Dowling and the equally legendary cave explorers Martin Robson and Vikki Batten. These top level divers set out helping me perfect my side mount skills and buoyancy. Post Tec Camp I signed up for an Advance Recreational Tri-mix and Tec Sidemount course with Phil Grigg and the Vobster IANTD team.

Due to Hurricane Debby I had plenty of time on my hands to get used to the weight differences of diving in fresh water. In Florida I would be diving my Dive Rite Nomad XT sidemount wing, in a 5mm Waterproof W1 wetsuit, with a 2mm neoprene vest to add a bit of buoyancy and warmth, as well as help offset the weight of the 85cf Steel tanks I would be using. The water in the caves in Florida is a cool 21 degree C constant year round water temperature. It  turned out that my new Santi E-lite dry-suit combined with the new Dive Rite LT super lightweight and robust sidemount wing would make for the perfect combination for cave diving.

The time to get on that plane  from London and get into the Floridian aquifer was fast approaching, and man was I excited.

My flight plan took me to Miami International and then connected to Jacksonville Airport where I then hired a car from the very helpful Bionca at the Alamo desk. It was then a very pleasant 90km drive to Lake City in a very spacious GMC Yukon. I was so amazed at just how nice the people of Florida were, I could not help but think I would like to live here one day, and that was before I had even seen how fantastic the cave diving is in this area. I don’t think I have ever seen gas blending stations like Bill Reneker’s set up at Cave Excursions or Wayne’s system (pictured) at Amigos Dive Centre. I am proud to say that I am the first person from Dubai on Waynes computer system.

With regard to travel, I think in hindsight I would fly to Orlando and then drive to Lake City, cutting out the internal two hour connecting flight. Driving in the US really is very easy, but don’t break the speed limits or you will incur the wrath of a Black and Tan patrol car (the type that Bruce Springsteen sings about, usually in a rather gruff voice).

I was lucky enough to be on my cave diving course with two delightful people, Dagmar & Jessie, a husband and wife team from Reef Runner Dive Centre in Missouri. We were dive buddies for the course and would be together for five days (as Dagma had already trained as a cavern diver).  I continued on the course for a further three days to qualify as an IANTD Full Cave Diver.

Lamar really put us through our paces and made us really think about what we were doing. From gas planning and gas matching to stream lining and equipment management. I particularly enjoyed the lights out drill and no mask out of air sharing, to name just a couple of the skills you have to complete. I was quite surprised at just how much we had covered by the end of the course.

But it really was the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I loved every minute and this is without a doubt the best course I have ever undertaken. I knew that I was comfortable in the terrestrial cave environment as I used to lead groups underground in cave activities in a former occupation. I had also spent time at the joint services caving centre in Ripon North Yorkshire before leaving the Army. If anyone had said to me then that I would eventually become a cave diver I would have looked at them with a expressive frown and asked them, Are you mad? What on earth would possess me to do that?

Following the course I spent the reaming time cave diving almost every day for the remaining two weeks of my stay. My most memorable dive was with Lamar at Cow Springs. This system has a particularly narrow stretch of passage with a high outflow. But what a beautiful cave system and a rare treat. Lamar's company Dive Rite has a full team of active cave divers and I had some great dives with these guys.

Two of the team John and Kenny, were just mad about cave diving and given the chance would probably live in the aquifer. Now that I've been bitten by the bug and have also made some good friends in Florida I can feel the call of the cave systems that I have yet to dive. If you would like to join me or you would like some more information then feel free to contact me. I will be going back!