NSS-CDS Cave DPV Class: Part 3-Scootering Manatee Springs

Manatee Springs-Catfish Hotel Sink

I woke up much more refreshed after getting to bed early and  having a reasonably good night’s sleep.  It was Sunday September 30th 2018, the last day of DPV Cave with Dan Patterson.  We were to meet him at 7:30 in front of Manatee Springs State park, which is located about 40 minutes Southwest of High Springs,  near the town of Chiefland Florida.  The park doesn’t open until 8:00 am,  but on weekends it can be busy with open water and cave divers that use catfish hotel (the main sinkhole/entrance to the cave) to dive in. The park limits the number of people in the water at one time, so it’s important to be there early.  We made short work of the morning routine, getting the lights put back together and the undergarments out of the dryer, etc etc. And  we were out the door with plenty of time to stop for coffee on the way.

Our first dive in the park was during fundamentals, in 2015, when we did skills and ascent work in the open water “offset” karst window called Catfish Hotel. Catfish is located just upstream from the main head springs. Offset sinks are common in Florida, and  In other words, the sinkhole is to one side of the main cave tunnel.   We’ve been back a few times to dive the Catfish Hotel basin,  and later after cave 2, we did one cave dive into Friedman’s sink, swimming down stream a few hundred feet to a tunnel aptly named ” The Sewer Tunnel” for all the gunk flowing out of it, then back up to to Friedmans’s fighting the flow and trying not to CO2 ourselves into a massive headache or worse.   My impression after swimming back upstream on that dive,  was that I’ll likely never try to swim in Manatee again (at least against the flow that is).   It’s hard to imagine how some of the early explorers managed to claw their way up in the cave to survey and explore thousands of feet without the help of scooters, literally digging their hands and feet/fins into the sand/silt  to pull on the bottom against the flow.

Google Maps view of the different sink holes.

The cave system is notorious for having extremely high flow. This is partly because the spring is close to the Gulf Coast and is affected by the tidal changes, and also because the spring is first magnitude,  with approximately  99 million gallons of water flowing out into the Suwannee river every day.  There are multiple sinkholes known as karst windows,  that are connected to the  main passage of the cave, which flows generally Northwest.  Furthermore,  the cave is less forgiving  because of the lower visibility and high flow. It’s not a “pretty” cave by ginnie standards, so consequently isn’t as popular for beginner cave divers,  and most divers that we know, tend to only scooter in it.   However if you take the time to learn the cave and find it’s hidden secrets, it’s a very interesting and beautiful place.  Or so I’ve been told.

Anyway, we met Dan at the park entrance and got checked in. From there, we drove down to the parking lot closest to the Catfish Hotel entrance,  and began discussing the day.  Next he gave us a tour of the site and told us some history of the cave system that we weren’t aware of.  We went to look at the head springs (the main outflow of water from the cave) and it had a noticeable boil. The flow was typical raging Manatee from what we could tell based on the boil.  “I’m sure glad I’m not trying to swim upstream today”, I thought.

Catfish Hotel At Manatee Springs Fundamentals 2015

As we walked around the site, I remember thinking about Fundamentals in 2015, which was  the first time we dove there.  What a difference it was between now and then.  In Fundamentals, we were in single tanks just trying to manage a stop at 20 and 10 feet.

Back in 2015, the idea of cave diving, let alone doing a dive like this, seemed so abstract, difficult and impossibly out of reach. We left Florida after class and drove home to Texas,  having already fallen in love with the springs.  In the months to follow,  I obsessively scoured the internet for cave diving videos and media; basically anything I could find on this new infatuation. I learned about cave  exploration efforts of the WKPP.  I learned that Manatee was once the site of the  world record cave penetration.  I discovered  a video of  Casey McKinlay and David Rhea going from Catfish Hotel to the monitoring station far upstream.

The video (among others) became a source of motivation for us to continue training, getting better,  and working hard.  We would watch it frequently along with others, dreaming about it having a chance to duplicate such a thing.  Although I’ll admit;  at the time I didn’t really think I would ever get the chance.   I remember wondering what it must have felt like to do that dive. What was the feeling that these guys had as they ducked under the low hanging rocks and gracefully glided around corners, making it all seem so effortless. Was the feeling peaceful? Was the feeling exhilarating? Would it be scary?  As we walked around the park and then back to the truck to begin unloading our gear for the dive, the reality of what were were about to do hit me.  Were about to find out for ourselves what that feeling was like and I was  beyond excited,  and a little nervous. Here is the video:

My dive buddy, Dan and Myself, laboriously unloaded our gear and carried it from the parking lot to the steps of Catfish Hotel.  The distance is probably around 200 yards one way. Now this may seem like a short distance,  but when you are hauling heavy doubles, deco bottles,  two stages each, and scooters,   It adds up to a lot of trips back and forth to the truck.   We joked about bailing on the dive and just going to do a shallow reef on a single tank, because it was a lot of work moving all that gear.  Someone said this was fun? Anyway, it’s a good thing we go to the gym a lot.

By then it was getting hot, so we formulated our dive plan,  and got into our drysuits so we could get into the water to cool off.   For our dive plan, we decided to scooter up to Friedmans sink from Catfish (approximately 1700′) on a single stage, then turn and swim back a little,  to gauge the flow and our swim pace.  This is all very important information to have when determining the gas plan on a scooter.   We would base our second dive on how the first one went.   Once in the water, we checked all of our gear, did our GUE EDGE,  and spent some time relaxing at the surface in the cool spring water, while another team went in ahead of us.  I’ve come to really love catfish hotel sink.  It’s covered in duckweed and typically the spring water under it is clear and beautiful, but the duckweed layer makes it seem dark and mysterious.

We waited about 15 or so minutes for the team ahead of us to get into the cave.  Then when were were fairly sure they were well ahead of us, it was finally our turn. Dan volunteered to set the reel  since if we did it,  we would likely burn half our available stage gas  doing so for the first time (because of being unfamiliar with the cave and the high flow).   I didn’t argue but I did volunteer to tow Dan’s scooter in for him.  From there I would lead the team up to Friedmans sink.  Well that was the plan anyway.

There we were,  at the entrance to the cave, scooter in hand, stage and deco bottles on our side, about experience that feeling that David and Casey must have felt from the fastlane divers video.  This was certainly a milestone.  And with that, we were off. Dan expertly picked his way down the slope of the basin and into the cavern.  I had never dove even in the cavern zone at Catfish Hotel,  so this was all new for us.  The walls are black and natural light quickly fades away as you enter the cavern zone.   Once you get down to about 60 or so feet and round a corner heading South East (directly in line with the main passageway of the cave), you suddenly get hit with the full force of the flow.  It was impressive.  I could see Dan make his way through a fairly small restriction where literally all the water in manatee springs flows through.  It’s such a strong flow that if you don’t have your mask strap down tight, it will certainly take it off your face. It will also free-flow your regulators if you don’t dial them back.  Once he got the reel in and gave me the signal,  I gunned the scooter and made my way through the restriction to where the gold line started.  My dive buddy was right behind me.  I really couldn’t believe the flow.  It did drop off some once we were in the cave but I had to hang on to the rocks while I unclipped Dan’s scooter and handed it to him.

After a brief pause waiting for everyone to get situated, I hit the trigger and led the team as we began to slowly scooter upstream towards our destination.  It was surreal and definitely unlike anything I’ve experience before.  The walls of the cave are dark and orange. The visibility was maybe 20-30 feet with lots of particulates in the water.  Our bright cave lights lighting the way reminded me of when I used to live in the north and had to drive in a snow storm.  The large particles moving past us were dizzying  as our lights lit them up.  It was easy to get disoriented and I had to focus hard on what I was doing to manage everything.  I also kept a careful eye on the line making sure I didn’t veer off course.   I couldn’t really relax as much as I would have liked.  I was part nervous, part excited and part overwhelmed.

Manatee Springs Cave System (screenshot from caveatlas.com)

As we reached the part of the cave that is directly below Sue’s Sink (another choke point located about half way to Friedmans) Dan zoomed ahead of us to show us a better way to get through it.  Too far to the left and you get the bulk of the flow, so the best way is to go far right through an eddy.   Furthermore, it’s turbulent flow which  is difficult to drive the scooter in.   I found out the hard way why Dan went right.  I tried to follow  on the right but got caught in the high flow to the left.  I had to pull the trigger down all the way on my scooter (The afterburner) and some to get though.   I was working much harder than I wanted even scootering . I looked at my pressure gauge after Sue’s sink and I was only a few hundred psi from my drop pressure. I was breathing too hard.    I was not relaxed at all on this dive,  and the feeling of peacefully zooming around corners and through duck unders,  like Casey and David from the video, was not the experience I was having at all. It was all new, there was so much going on that I couldn’t settle my breathing to have any semblance of a decent SAC rate.

Once we were through Sue’s,  the cave opened up again and I led from there up to Friedman’s.  It was rolling sand dunes with average depth changes of 15-20′ from top to bottom.  I started to recognize the cave some as we got to the jump for the sewer tunnel, which was a place we dove when we went into Friedmen’s sink with Meredith a few months prior.  I knew we were close to our turn around point.  Shortly after the sewer tunnel we ducked under a low bedding plane and then  started going up a really large sand dune. I knew this was our stopping point and slowly made my way up  the dune to see the line make a T.  One line was going straight up to the ceiling (this led to the open water of Friedman’s) and the other continued going into the cave.  Unfortunately when I got to the top of the sand dune, I was caught in a fairly strong upward flow and it forced me up faster than I could dump my wing and suit.  I went  for a ride up about 10-15 feet before I finally got it under control.  “This cave is ruthless, I’ve got to be on my toes!”, I thought.

We had been scootering for about 20 minutes by the time we reached Friedman’s. I used more than my 1/2+2 drop pressure on the stage too.   I had approximately 1300psi left in the stage.   But since we had full back gas it wasn’t a big deal and the plan wasn’t to drop the stages anyway since we were turning around.   However I suspected that depending on the speed we swam back to catfish hotel, that I might need to switch to back gas somewhere along the way.

We hung at Friedmans for a few minutes to look around, before we began swimming back towards Catfish Hotel. My dive buddy led the way.  Even without using the scooters,  we were moving very quickly through the cave with the flow.  Soon we were back past Sue’s sink, where I reached 500 PSI in my stage,  and indicated to the team that I was switching to Back gas.  Then within what seemed like no time at all, I could see my dive buddy ahead of me indicating that our reel was up ahead.  We were leaving the reel so the final challenge was to make it through the last little restriction into catfish hotel sink.  The flow really picked up here and there are all kinds of eddy’s that try to slam you into the rocks on the way out.  As you get closer to the restriction there is no stopping it.  You are going for a ride weather you like it or not.  Then as you go through the  restriction before catfish, it’s like being shot out of a cannon (well maybe a low velocity cannon)  I had to dump my wing and suit like crazy to keep from being blown to the ceiling.

All of us made it through the restriction just fine,  and we were able to get out of the flow some while we got situated.  We see the light from Catfish hotel glowing ahead of us so we followed our line back up to where we stashed the deco bottles.   We began our minimum deco  from 30 feet.  We didn’t need to do a switch to oxygen on this dive since we were within our min deco limits.  But Dan has us tow each other around and do some gas sharing mid water.  I enjoy that kind of thing now, but I did have to laugh at myself thinking that during fundies, there was no chance I could have managed to do those skills near the bottom with all the gear we had on us , let alone in mid water.  When we surfaced, I was feeling pretty humbled.  It’s a beautiful cave but It certainly has a way of making you feel small and inferior.  Total bottom time was about 50 minutes with an average depth of 70ft.

We left our empty stages and scooters in the water and climbed out for some lunch and a debrief on the dive.  Overall it went pretty well. There were certainly things to work on though. We did the math on our exit swim pace, I was pretty amazed that we could swim out almost as fast as we scootered in.  It did help that we were scootering fairly slow and we did set the reel but still it was impressive.  For our next dive, we planned to do another stage dive up to Friedmans, but drop the stages this time and continue past Friedmans another 2000 feet or so.  Based on our estimation, this should take about 40 mins total to reach approximately 3700 feet upstream.  We carefully planned our gas on these numbers.  After about a two hour surface interval, we started gearing up for our second dive.  I was really hoping I’d have a nice relaxing dive this time.  I’ve been pretty anxious on all the scooter dives so far,  and this was the last one of class (if it went well).

We got back into the water, did our gear checks and GUE  EDGE, and were under way.   my dive buddy led  this dive with Dan in the # 3 position.  Since we left our reel in on the first dive, we all got to scooter into the cave, which made things much easier.  From the moment I pulled the trigger to go into the cavern zone I felt a very peaceful relaxed wave come over me. Everything felt right.  I just let the scooter pull me into the cave. I stopped trying to horse it around and instead, carefully finessed my way through the first restriction that gave me so much trouble before.  I wasn’t tense and my breathing was calm and steady.   My dive buddy and I spread out in the cave more as we followed the line to Sue.  I was having an absolute blast,  and when I check my pressure after Sue sink, I was well away from my drop pressure.  I thought to myself, “What a huge difference just being relaxed can make”.

We continued to cruse further into the cave, gliding around corners, ducking under lower parts, sailing over big sand dunes. It was exhilarating and I felt as if it was effortless.  We reached Friedmans after about 17 minutes, just like before, only this time I was right on my drop pressure.  My SAC rate had drastically improved on this dive.   It did take us about 5 minutes to drop the stages and keep going because my dive buddy was having trouble with a stuck clip on her stage.  We were smart about it this time though, as we hid behind the large sand dune out of the flow to make our switch to back gas and drop stages.  I also had to clip my dive buddy’s stage to mine because the line was so incredibly tight that I could only get my stage onto it with a proper secure wrap.  I clipped my dive buddy’s stage the line without a wrap ( with the clip close to the valve) and then used the top clip to attach hers stage to mine so that the flow wouldn’t push it out of the cave.

After the stage drop was complete, we continued  further into the cave. From there the passage is very manic.  One section will have huge sand dunes reaching as shallow as 30 feet and then the next section will have a canyon or a duck under.  I was still having a great time and so far It was the dive I hoped for.   We scootered very slowly upstream for another 20 minutes and made it about 1100 feet past Friedman’s.  I signaled my dive buddy that we should turn around because we were at our turn time that we discussed during our dive plan.   I wasn’t at my turn pressure  (I actually had almost 300 psi to go),  but It was a our dive plan and time to turn.  I was happy with what we had done.

I began to lead the team out back towards Friedmans scootering with the flow.  I had the scooter setting very low but still managed to get blown into a few rocks here and there. It was unavoidable sometimes.  I didn’t feel comfortable going much faster than we were going.  The relative velocities of the scooter and the flow made us have to make very fast adjustments with buoyancy to keep from crashing into the floor, ceiling or rocks. I liken it to underwater white water rafting.  We got back to our stages in about 15 minutes, quickly picked them up, made our switch, and were well under way about 3 minutes later. This time we were able to do our stage switch drifting with the flow so that helped.

For the next 15 minutes, I led the team very slowly out of the cave. I didn’t need to make the switch to back gas at Sue sink this time,  and we reached our reel after about 75 minutes total bottom time. Dan generously recovered the reel while my dive buddy and I got spat out of the last restriction. (actually my dive buddy was supposed to do that, but we both got spat out of the cave and left it for Dan) From there we made our way back out to Catfish hotel and picked up our Oxygen bottles we left at 30 feet.   We had some deco to do at 20 feet so we hung mid water on oxygen for a few minutes.  Dan is so solid in the water too.  His stability and smoothness executing tasks is something to aspire to.

The dive buddy, Dan, and Andrew, after passing Cave DPV

We got out of the water were pretty tired after hauling all our bottles, scooters and back gas back to the truck.  It was late afternoon by then so we decided to do our debrief at EE while we got fills. On the drive back to EE, my dive buddy and I talked a lot about our first dives in Manatee, and fundamentals. It was hard to believe we got to do what we just did.  It was very humbling. It was a pretty amazing experience and now I finally know what it feels like to scooter in Manatee.

Once we arrived at EE, Dan took is into the classroom for our debrief.  Dan told us that we passed the class and we were very excited.  It was hard work but overall the class was excellent, and we learned a ton.  My dive buddy and I now have our Cave DPV training wheels.  Dan showed us the tools we need to successfully plan a scooter dive into a cave,  and we were so glad we got a chance to spend the weekend with Him.  It was like going for a weekend diving with a long time buddy.   The last thing we needed to do was get a team photo, so we went out in front of EE and smiled for the camera.