Underground-2017 Year In Review

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We’ve been really busy cave diving, averaging about 10 cave dives per month, since completing our GUE Cave 1 class almost exactly a year ago.   We have learned a lot this year,  and are lucky to have such beautiful dive sites in our back yard.  Now we are on the cusp of taking GUE Cave 2,  and we are very excited for the next chapter in our diving.   As we have been preparing for the next chapter in our diving, it’s also given us a chance to reflect on what we have learned this year.

Duckweed Fun! Orange Grove Sink, 2017

Our first cave dive without an instructor was at Peacock springs,  on January 2nd.  I don’t remember much of the dive except that we dove very conservatively and it was on the Peanut line. In class we didn’t get to see the cave much. And I think the first dives during class were not very far into the cave at all.  We probably only made that first dive to just past the breakdown room and turned it (roughly 400-500 feet in).  Our  idea was to explore the main line  a little each dive.  We aren’t in any rush. The caves (Hopefully ) aren’t going anywhere for a very long time.  Our next dive was the Pothole line (or Olsen line).  During class and for at least a few dives on that tunnel, I was a little freaked out by that near vertical bedding plane that you have to go down to get to the main cave area.  I bet we didn’t make it past the 450′ mark on that dive either.

Peanut line in orange and the Olsen line in teal.

This would be the theme for the next few months. Each dive we’d go a little further, get a little more comfortable and relax a little more.  We would rotate our diving from Ginnie, to Peacock, to Orange, To lIttle River and back again. We also got a chance to dive Madison, and eventually Jackson Blue (later on in the year). If you follow our instagram, we’ve posted many of the pictures there.

Speaking of pictures; we waited about 20 dives after cave 1, before we even brought a go pro into the caves. At first it was just the go pro and eventually I tried with a camera tray but it was too much of a pain to drag around. After a handful of dives I settled on a go pro on a bolt snap and a small video light I could get into my pocket. This way everything could be stowed before the dive. If the dive was going well and we had planned to take photos or video, then the go pro and lights came out.   A lesson in cave diving is that you don’t bring what you don’t need. I guess one could argue that we never really need a go pro. Though,  I wanted to share our adventures with family, friends and anyone else that might pass by this page, or our youtube, instagram or facebook page. Of course we made every effort to do the filming in a safe and controlled manner. It’s an amazing world down there, I want to share it.  Throughout the year I created some videos with quick edits for youtube. Here’s an early one at peacock, and  I just love the shot of coming back into the cavern zone with all the beams of light streaming in.

After a few months of diving, and maybe 30 -40 cave dives later,  we thought that Cave 2 was something we would do sooner rather than later, however no real commitment had been made.  My dive buddy and I had agreed that our goal was to do 100 Cave 1 level dives before taking Cave 2.  The requirement is only 20 (or is it 25?) but we felt that part of the fun is exploring this new world and we didn’t want to rush it.  We had been doing a little more multi-tasking with making some of the videos and we were just having so much fun. It’s quite literally an addiction for both of us.

Around the same time I realized that If I wanted to feel better after a day of cave diving , I really needed to get into better shape. I set a goal to get stronger and more fit. I had been running some,  but it was the addition of a proper diet and weight lifting that made the difference. Over the course of a few months I lost approximately 40 pounds.  My energy level was up and I waned to dive more (and we did)  My dive buddy also started going to the gym with me. We focused on building her legs up and she has gotten stronger all over. This just makes sense.  We carry almost 150 pounds of gear to the water and it can be strenuous.  Not to mention having to fight flow getting into Ginnie or Little river.  Being in shape for cave diving is a must.  Now we have a regular routine of running and weight lifting. I’m not the best runner by any means but we typically run 5-8 miles per week.  My dive buddy will tell you that she doesn’t struggle hiking the gear up the stairs at little river any more. She used to have to stop two or three times walking up the steps.

It seemed that  months flew by.  We had been driving to high springs nearly 2 to 3 weekends per month and just diving.  We would get obsessed with a cave for a few dives and spend an entire weekend diving it. Then we’d reach a point that we felt like we figured it out enough (or got bored) and move to the next cave on the list that we hadn’t been to in a while.   Ginnie is always an obsession, and it’s like a chess game.  We would have good dives in ginnie and get a little further and then some dives would just kick our ass.  We would go in the ear and try different ways of tying the reel and swimming in to avoid the flow.  Eventually we learned some of the tricks at least for the first few hundred feet, but we still learn something every time we dive ginnie (and get a little further each time).  Little river would be next in line for frustration. We’ve had some really great dives in that cave and some not so great dives.

One of the biggest lessons we learned this year was to slow down. And I mean SLOOOOW.  We were diving peacock  early on and easily made it to the half way point between P1 and Olsen sink (about 700 feet in), Then we would make it maybe 100 feet further each subsequent dive.  This issue was always me and my gas consumption. I’d get pretty excited to be in the cave and just breath hard. Or we’d both be kicking too hard.  It took a handful of dives on the Olsen line before we even came off the gold line enough to see the bones at Pothole Sink. But we were still kicking too much and going too fast.  GUE pace is about 150 feet for 5 mins of diving. Try to walk that pace once. It’s almost impossible to go that slow.

It wasn’t until the spring that we tried an experiment with our pacing. We had been reaching the window on olsen line pretty frequently (1000 feet or so from P1) but never any further.  I would turn on gas every time.  One day we decided to do 2 dives back to back on the Olsen line. the first dive we swam fast, probably triple or more of the GUE pace of 150 ft/5mins. Basically we swam to the point where it was almost exercise. The heart rate was up for sure.  Funny enough we didn’t even make it to the window.  So the next dive we swam slow and on less gas we made it further.  The light bulb went off.  Well hmmm maybe if we swim really slow and have a nice relaxing dive, we might make it to Olsen sink.   A few weeks later, we tried just that.  It was hard to swim so slow. We were still faster than 150’/5min but we actually were able to get within 200 feet from olsen before I turned.  Olsen was a mystery that we had only seen from the surface.  We didn’t think we could get there on the limited gas of Cave 1 rules.

If you watch the video of us on the olsen line (above) and pay attention to the respiratory rate, you can hear it’s not as relaxed as it should be. In the video my breathing is frequent. We are kicking too much.  I noticed this in many of the videos we made. Too much movement will increase the demand for oxygen to the muscles and the gas consumption goes up (of course).   So after realizing this, I began shooting for an almost resting respiratory rate on all my dives and eventually we made it to olsen sink but didn’t have enough gas to actually tie in and surface before I hit my turn pressure.  And by the way, Mer told us this in C1 but I’m a slow learner.  So the next challenge for us was to learn to chill out.  You actually get further in to the cave if you swim slower. it’s counter-intuitive for sure,  but it’s true, I guarantee it.

Just this past weekend, we finally made it to Olsen sink,  and I had enough gas to surface in the sink before hitting my turn pressure.  It was a pretty surreal  experience. We had just swam 1400 or so feet underground. My dive buddy and I surfaced in the sink and talked about our diving for nearly 10 minutes. It was probably the best dive of the year and we really felt like we had come a long way. Were we ready for the next step?  I don’t know , but we are taking a leap of faith into cave 2 anyway.

We committed to taking Cave 2 at the end of  2017.  I don’t recall thinking i’m ready or we need to do this. It just happened. Maybe it was people asking us about when we would take Cave 2. Maybe it was us feeling comfortable and truly having fun while cave diving.  Either way, we booked Cave 2 for just after Christmas 2017.  The decision was made around the middle of  August. We had probably done 75 cave 1 level dives in all the caves we could get our hands on.  We figured we’d have our 100 dives by the time we did Cave 2 for sure. Now that we had committed to Cave 2,  I had to start collecting gear. Cave 2 requires extra regulators for the stage and oxygen bottles and we only had enough for our back gas.  We needed more spools and other odds and ends. I had been collecting doubles for the entire year and we have amassed 6 sets of 104’s. Yes I’m a 104-aholic.   I spent three months scouring eBay and scuba swap and shop for regs. Eventually I got enough for the stages and O2. I had some luxfer aluminum 80s that we turned into stage but I had to buy the aluminum 40s new (the o2 bottles)

For preparation for Cave 2,  we did start focusing a bit more on our diving skills. We really had just been diving and having fun.  My dive buddy wanted to get really proficient running the reel into ginnie, so we spent an entire day tying in to the ear. Each dive was a different path and we’d run back to the lips or the keyhole and back out.   We made a game of it. We also continued to check our pace on each dive.   We joked because this is the first year in a long time where we didn’t do mostly training dives.  We dove with more people and learned from them. Some GUE and Some non-GUE.   We really focused on finding our weak spots and at least trying to iron those out as best as we could.

However, beyond the diving, easily the best thing  that we have gotten from this year,  is the community of friends we have met or gotten to know better.   We’ve met some amazing GUE divers and non GUE divers from around the world.  We’ve had friends visit us and had a chance to show them our favorite places,  and we’ve had some of the locals show us their favorite places as well.  I’ve probably never been around a more welcoming group of people than the ones that orbit High Springs.

It’s been a good year for diving and we are really looking forward to 2018.