Ahhh Blue Grotto. By now we are intimately familiar with this place. Virtually all of our GUE classes have started here (except for cave 2). It’s a great place to train and the facilities are very nice. Picnic tables, covered pavilions, showers, and nice bathrooms. The downside is that It’s also fairly crowded on the weekends with other classes and divers. And the basin is fairly small and shallow. But it’s a really great place to bring newer divers or test out gear or train as I said.
We arrived at 8am to check in, followed shortly thereafter by Per, Kirill and Lauren (a GUE fundamentals instructor). Lauren was going to be a fly on the wall for this weekend’s in water work. She is also a good friend and has been very encouraging of our journey in GUE, so it was nice to have her. Sometimes other instructors or people will sit in on a class to see it from a different perspective. I’ve personally wanted to sit in on a Fundamentals class just to see it without the stress of being in the class. I think it would be fun.
After checking in, we found a pavilion and Kirill began to discuss the plan for the day, and went over a brief introduction of the dive site for Per, who had never been to blue grotto. Per, myself and Tina, walked a stage bottle down to the water and clipped them off on a small piece of rope hanging int the water. At the same time, Kirill talked more about the dive site. The water was blue as always and up a little bit more than we have seen. I like to dive this sink, however I have not always had the best dives in class there. It’s a good controlled environment for instructors to push you a bit, so that has a lot to do with the love hate relationship I have with it. At one point there was a sizable overhang of rock to the left of the platform visible in the picture above. Recently a big storm sheared a huge chunk of rock above the sink hole, and that was interesting to see. You can make out a fresher looking rock face that doesn’t have any vegetation on it in the picture and this gives you an idea of how big the slab was. Nobody was in the water at the time and that kind of thing is fairly uncommon.
Much of the early morning discussion centered around Tech 1 procedures, the differences in cave and tech when using a reel, valve failures, some hypothetical scenarios, and unconscious diver recovery. Neither Tina, myself or Per really knew what to expect from the in water part of the class but I wasn’t really nervous about diving blue grotto or the inevitable failures and ascent work that we would be doing. At one point not so long ago, I would have been beyond anxious about it, but we have been working hard and I had the confidence.
After Kirill demonstrated and talked about the skills we would be doing and what his expectations were, we all grabbed some cold drinks, and a quick snack as we began to gear up. And on that note, quite possibly the best dive related investment that Tina and I have made this year was a small Yeti cooler. We ‘ve used a cheap igloo cooler for a long time and for the most part it has been fine. But as our dives have gotten longer, we found that we would lose the ice in it about half way through the day, and we had to be careful about making sure that our sandwiches were not getting spoiled. At the dive sites, we normally have to leave the cooler in the hot truck for hours and our little Igloo just wasn’t up for the job. The Yeti on the other hand, is worth every penny of it’s price tag.
It was so hot out that we were was off getting into our drysuits until the very last second. I waited until all the gas was analyzed and everything was ready to go. Fortunately there are some well known tricks that we have adopted that help us stay cool once we are in our drysuits. Places like blue grotto and some dive boats will have a shower and or a hose of cool water. We simply get into our suits and stand under the shower or let the boat crew hose us off. And in a few minutes we are cooled and don’t feel so overheated. The second trick is to take some ice cubes from the cooler and pack them around our neck. The collar of the drysuit holds the ice in place and it will melt once you jump into the water. This works really well at dive sites and on a boat.
The cool 72 degree water of blue grotto was a welcome relief once we finally got in. Earlier Kirill had briefed us on the dive plan for the day, and it sounded fairly entertaining. We would do a few dives working on ascents, handling deco bottles, gas switches, failures, diver recovery and line work. Most of that stuff we have done before in cave classes so it should have been a refresher. This was also the first time Per, Tina and myself have dove together, so we would need to learn to work as a team.
We started our first dive of Tech 1 and we descended to about 30 feet, where we would do most of the work. I shot an SMB from there and we used this as our ascent line. Next was a series of midwater valve drills and s-drills from 30 feet and at stops at 20 and 10. I think we were all a bit rusty on the skills and admittedly I hadn’t done a valve drill in months. We weren’t a total mess but it wasn’t pretty either. One of the key aspects of tech diving is timed ascents and descents. It becomes more and more critical to be able to ascend at precise speeds and stop on a dime at each prescribed stop. We quickly discovered we had a decent and ascent timing issue. We were just too slow. This is not uncommon and we have been able to be lazy about ascents from cave diving.
Next we simulated gas switches at various stops as we held formation around the upline, by switching to the stage bottle. For this day, we just used 32% stage bottles because there was no need to do any real deco. In other words, all the dives were simulated decompression dives. I think we did ok on this skill and it was a real benefit that all of us were cave 2. However we were still slow as a team. Some of the gas switches took a really long time and I’m pretty sure we missed the buoyancy window of 3 feet on a few switches. but it wasn’t catastrophic. At this point in the day I was thinking we were doing ok.
Next we did a simulated wreck dive. This involved running the reel from our ascent line around the basin of blue grotto. “Yeah I’m a cave 2 diver, I should be just like cave diving. I got this” I thought. But as much as I hate to admit it, nothing amps me up more than knowing one or all of us will have some kind of simulated equipment failure. And it only gets worse if you make the wrong decision. The cascading errors keep coming until we can sort it out. Sure enough, within minutes of the dive, Kirill wove a tapestry of failures and scenarios that had our heads spinning. We were a total mess. I ended up “losing” a deco bottle at one point, and I’m pretty sure Per and Tina were sharing gas as we began our ascent. So by the time we got to our simulated deco stop of 15ft, my dive buddies happily switched to their deco bottles one at a time, but when it was my turn to make the switch, I showed my team that I wasn’t wearing a deco bottle, then I smiled at Kirill, shrugged my shoulders like “well I don’t have a deco bottle so I guess lets go up?” and gave the thumbs up. I made the slow ascent to the surface with my head hanging in shame, knowing that he had beaten me. In reality he had beaten all of us. Kirill swiftly executed his game and found a lot of weaknesses in each of us. It was a well played game.
We decided to get some lunch and it was a good stopping point mentally. The last simulated dive was such a mess that I think I needed to regain my confidence. Kirill is a tough instructor, but also a master of dialing the intensity up and down, so don’t let that turn you away. Lunch was basically an extended debrief and we talked about unconscious diver recovery and all the things we did wrong on the last dive. Sadly the skills and scenarios that I figured we would do fine on, were actually some of the things we struggled the most with.
It didn’t take long before we were back in the water, doing another simulated wreck dive. This time I was leading the dive. I was still a bit amped up and forgot to do a secondary tie off. I’m so used to doing the secondary just inside the cave that it was hard for me to break that habit and do it the way you would for a tech dive. And since we weren’t allowed in the cavern zone during training (per the standards) I was just not thinking like a tech diver yet. I finally did remember to do the secondary tie off but I felt like an Idiot about forgetting. Sure enough the failures came and we looked like a total mess again. Some of us were on backup masks, sharing gas and dealing with other failures. I couldn’t see very well either, because I never ever put defog on my backup mask and it was all fogged up. (lesson learned). The point of this exercise was to make us think about situations and it definitly got us all thinking. The truth is, I’m pretty sure this day would have gone way worse had I not been cave 2. Even though the failures were hard and we had a lot to think about in a very short amount of time, I was never worried or anxious and like i was in some of the earlier classes. That’s part of building a good diver. Hey maybe this GUE thing works?
The last part of the day was something I have begun to actually look forward to. The diver recovery is a skill that you first see in fundamentals. And the first time I tried this skill, it was so difficult for me that I was physically exhausted after doing it. However, gradually after many attempts and then the coup de gras of Tina and I doing simulated recovery’s out of the eye at ginnie, I have started to think it was a fun challenge. That being said, if I had to do it in real life, it would be terrifying. The reality is that if you ever find yourself in a diver recovery situation; it means something has gone very wrong. However today we were just having a little fun.
We each took a turns being the victim and the recovery diver. And we all dive really well with this. The skill requires excellent buoyancy and the ability to manage a diver pretending to be unconscious on an ascent. We didn’t do each other any favors either. if the recovery diver didn’t dump the victim’s dry suit or wing they would find them selves riding a rocket to the surface. It was actually kinda fun being the victim too.
The day was over before we knew it, and just like all the previous GUE classes at blue grotto we were the last divers out of the water for the day. After a quick debrief and gear down we made our way back to highs springs for gas fills. No lectures were needed because we were able to cover a great deal of material the previous day. While at EE Kirill informed us that we needed to fill our 50% bottles for the following day. We had earned a deeper dive at Hudson grotto using real deco gas. We were done filling tanks by 6pm. We made plans to meet at Hudson grotto in the morning, and Tina and I shook hands with Per and headed to the house.
On the way home we were starving so we got some fast food , which we rarely do. But It was delicious and salty, and we probably needed some salt. We sweated a lot and did a fair amount of work so that’s how I justified it. That evening we had a chance to relax a bit, and rehydrate with some wine. My thoughts on the first day were that it was certainly a challenge. I really don’t think I could have done tech 1 training any earlier than we did. We still had a long road ahead of us, but at least for now I felt confident that we were making progress.