Revisiting the Joys and Rigors of Karst Culture
MICHAEL MENDUNO – OUR MAN BENEATH THE SURFACE REPORTS…
High Springs, Florida July 2018 — With his directive, “Follow me and do exactly what I do,” firmly fixed in my brain, I finned through the swirling brown, red and yellow tannic water, plunged over the lip of Devil’s Ear into the raging flow of water—nearly 120 ft3/sec—which threatened to blow us out of the cave, and began steadily pulling myself down into Ginnie Springs behind National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Division (NSS-CDS) instructor Reggie Ross while calming my racing heart. The other member of our team, Chris Brock, also a CDS instructor, had already negotiated the Ear and was waiting for us inside, high up along the wall.
What was I getting myself into?
It was my first cave dive in what was planned to be a week-long full cave re-certification course. I was there to knock the rust off, and there was plenty of it to keep me busy. Though I had been diving over the last five years, it tended to be a few dives here and a few there; never enough to get my groove back. My last cave dives were in Mexico in 2009. A week of cave diving seemed just the ticket.
I met Chris last year through my cave diving friend Renee Power while on assignment reporting on explorer Bill Stone’s autonomous cave diving robot. The three of us were part of Stone’s support team and Chris and I hit it off immediately. Chris later introduced me to Reggie, who with underground veteran Harry Averill, make up the team at Cavediving.com. In addition to CDS, they also teach for TDI, IANTD and PADI. We subsequently made plans to do some training to reacquaint me with the joys and rigors of karst culture.
My first exposure to cave diving came in the Fall of 1989 in an interview with National Cave Diving Association (NACD) technology chair Bill Gavin, who was also one of the co-founders of the Woodville Karst Plain Project (WKPP), one of the early cave exploration teams. I was researching a story on decompression diving for the first issue of my magazine “aquaCORPS,” which I planned to launch at the Diving Equipment & Marketing Association (DEMA) show that coming January. At the time, “decompression” and “deep” diving (beyond 130 ft/40 m)—the “D-words”—were considered strictly verboten in sport diving circles, and the small groups that were conducting these dives treated them on a strictly need-to-know-basis lest the inexperienced be led to their doom.
Pleasantries out of the way, and working my way through a carefully prepared line of inquiry, I popped the question. “Do you do a lot of decompression diving?” Gavin’s answer was a little more than I was prepared for. “We really don’t do many decompression dives anymore,” he said. “Not on air.”
I learned that Gavin and his WKPP team had recently completed a record 8,700 ft/2,652 m traverse from Sullivan Sink to Cheryl Sink at average depth of 220 ffw/67 mfw with bottom times exceeding 95 minutes, and more than five hours of decompression using trimix and various decompression gases. You can do that?
This was nearly four years before most of the recreational diving industry could spell the word N-I-T-R-O-X, let alone trimix. I was hooked.
I later came to appreciate that cave divers were, in fact, the original technical divers. The unforgiving nature of the environment forced them to deal with issues of gas planning, gas physiology, decompression diving, navigation and transport, and buoyancy and trim in order to explore and survive. As a result, cave divers were the first to adapt back-mounted inflation, regulator redundancy, cylinder staging, primary lights and reels, proper buoyancy and trim, and developed accident analysis in an effort to reduce the high number of diving fatalities in the 1970s and 80s.
They were also the first community to pioneer mixed gas scuba diving beginning in the early 1980s culminating in Bill Stone’s Wakulla Springs Project (1987), which arguably could be considered the birth of what would later become known as “technical diving.” The wreck diving community grudgingly followed suit years later, in some cases kicking and screaming.
Losing My Karst Virginity
I took my full cave course the following year in August, 1990 with NACD instructor Steve Gerrard who was one of their most active instructors. At the time there was only a cavern and “full cave” course. I had already started diving trimix on the wrecks in Key West, FL under the tutelage Capt. Billy Deans. This was before there were trimix certifications.
Outside of the stark beauty of the cave environment, which to me was akin to traveling to another planet, two points stand out prominently in my logbook from the week-long, 12-dive course. First unlike recreational diving courses at the time, we had daily, detailed discussions about cave diving fatalities, which was sobering and added to cave diving’s mystique.
Second, was NACD’s philosophy and approach to cave diving, which I noted as the most important part of the course. My log read, quoting Gerrard, “Here is the information. It’s up to you to develop your own philosophy and protocols regarding decompression and mixed gas use.” The same applied to equipment configuration.
At the time there were no standardized procedures or protocols for conducting deep decompression dives. The “official” recommendation was summed up in the third of ten guidelines in explorer Sheck Exley’s book, Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival. to wit: “Avoid Deep Diving In Caves.” Right? Later the recommendation would be informally changed to “Avoid Deep Diving On Air.” Sheck of course, was the first chairman of the NSS-CDS, which was formed in 1973.
During that first course, I fascinated by cave diving technique, procedures and equipment, and was less focused on the actual caves themselves. Within a year, I moved to Key West to help Deans set up the world’s first technical diving training center, and had regular opportunities to drive up to cave country where we conducted mix dives at places like Eagles Nest and Diepolder. At the time, we recommended that anyone interested in learning mix diving should take a cave course. And they did.
Sadly, aquaCORPS folded in 1996 and I took nearly a decade and a half hiatus from the sport that I loved. Ironically, it was Gerrard and cave diving that drew me back in 2009, when I traveled to the Yucatan for a week of cave diving. I figured that Steve would start me slow, maybe an ocean dive first—I hadn’t been underwater for nearly 10 years. Instead, Steve had me load up the doubles. “We’re going cave diving. You’ll be fine.” We did and I was. That was the week that got me back into diving.
The School of Wet Rocks
How do you begin to convey the vast body of knowledge, technique, experience and tradition that is cave diving, in a week of training? For Reggie Ross, a quintessential old school cave instructor and instructor trainer, who has been teaching for more than four decades, it was a matter of applying the tried and true CDS approach.
“We don’t do chaos or confusion in cave diving,” Reggie explained to me just before our first shake-out dive at Ginnie Springs. Similar to NAUI, CDS instructors create their own course syllabus and materials and rely heavily on mentoring and apprenticeship. Chris had earned his full-cave instructorship under Ross’s mentorship.
Over the next eight days, I camped out with Chris at Reggie’s house and literally lived, ate, and slept cave diving, in what were mostly intense 16 to 18-hour days filled with informal lectures, driving, diving, drills, de-briefs, tank fills, gear adjustment and plenty of stories. Because of flooding we did most of our dives at Ginnie, however we spent two days at Peacock, and one at Little River, just before it got flooded out and reversed flow.
The rust gradually began to fall away, as the bloom on my aching “Ginnie Fingers” (ouch!) was waxing. “Try not to pull with your fingers,” they said. Right, I get it! Easier said than done.
Harry joined us on several occasions to add his perspective, and we all went out to dinner with CDS graybeard and pioneer Lamar Hires, CEO of Dive Rite, who mentored Reggie, and was himself was mentored by deceased underground filmmaker and pioneer Wes Skiles. [Lamar met up with us later in the week for a dive at Little River.] We were also joined at dinner by Bill Hogarth Main, a co-founder of the WKPP, who the “Hogarthian” configuration—the predecessor of the “Doing it Right” or DIR approach to diving—was named after. More cave diving stories ensued.
Attention To Detail
One of the things I enjoy about karst culture is the meticulous and passionate attention to detail. After our first day of diving, Reggie took me task on my hose configuration and had me read a blog he had written called, “A Tale of Two Configurations.”
According to Reggie, back in the early 1990s, the argument for breathing off the long hose, when using doubles, had essentially been settled. [Others dispute this claim]. There was also reported widespread agreement on the best way to configure one’s hoses. The recommendation was to run the LP inflator hose straight down from the regulator on the left post (left shoulder) to the wing inflator. If a dry suit inflator hose was used, it was run from the right post regulator, which also fed the (primary) long hose. The primary is connected to the right post because the valve won’t “roll” shut in the event of bumping the cave ceiling.
This configuration, which was used by Main and considered Hogarthian, was broadly accepted and reportedly used by the WKPP, which at the time had a sponsorship deal with ScubaPro and used their regulators. The regulators had a special swivel that made it easy to streamline the wing inflator hose coming off the left post.
As Reggie tells the story (the cave community has long memories!), things changed after the highly opinionated, and oft times vitriolic George Irvine assumed leadership role of the WKPP in 1994. Specifically, Irvine changed the hose configuration to feed the wing inflator from the right post instead of the left, despite push-back from Main and others. WKPP divers typically used offboard cylinders (w/argon) to inflate their drysuit as they usually dived helium mixes.
Irvine incorporated this hose configuration into WKPP’s original “Doing It Right,” (DIR) approach to diving, which was adopted by Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) when it was formed in 1998, and so the configuration schism was born. [Full disclosure: I’m a GUE member and edit their blog “InDepth“).
[Image: The Hogarthian configuration has 1-2 hoses running behind the diver’s neck (depending on whether an off-board suit inflation bottle is used) and uses more direct hose routing; the DIR configuration has 3-4 hoses running behind the diver’s neck.]
Reggie had already teased me about my affiliation with GUE, which some refer to as the “Dark Side,” at least in part, due to Irvine’s early day polemics [Little known fact: Irving was never a part of the GUE and dropped out of diving shortly after GUE was formed]. But it was also due to GUE’s adherence to gear configuration and operational standards, which ironically, are the norm in public safety, military and commercial diving.
“Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” Reggie cautioned, which to me, was a bit amusing and ironic. I was sporting the DIR config, used by GUE i.e. my wing was feed from my right post along with my primary, my dry suit and secondary were fed by my left.
The problem, Reggie explained, was what occurs in the event of a “roll-off” of the left post. In the original hogarthian configuration feeding the wing from the left post, a diver would get a warning when they tried to inflate their wing (and nothing happened). With the DIR configuration, a diver possibly wouldn’t realize they had a problem when they went to share gas: they would hand off their primary, put their ‘necklace regulator’ in their mouth and get nothing. Not a good place to be. I uncrossed my hoses.
Ironically, three days later I had a roll-off while conducting a blind “bump and go” gas sharing drill (with me in the rear) at Ginnie through what felt like a tight constricted passageway. My back-up regulator suddenly went dry. WTF?!@#? That had never happened to me before. Since I wasn’t using my wing, there was no warning. It took me a few stressful moments to realize why I couldn’t breathe.
Later, after the course, I called GUE Instructor Evaluator Kirill Egorov the rationale for feeding the wing from the right post. He explained that, for himself, in the event of a run-away BCD inflator valve (for example in very cold water), the diver can shut off his right post, while operating the left-hand dump on his wing. Makes perfect sense.
I also emailed GUE founder and CEO Jarrod Jablonski, who had been the training director for the WKPP before starting GUE. He told me that he and George preferred running the right post hose to the wing, since losing the BCD on a roll-off (for example while scootering) was much more consequential than losing dry suit inflation, which in any case, was usually connected to separate inflation bottle.
He said that in his view the question of whether to run the Wing inflator from the right or the left post focused on the wrong problem. “The best solution is to check the valve anytime you bump anything which is what we teach at GUE,” Jarrod explained. “It’s pretty easy to condition people to do this when you explain the consequences of not acting in this way.”
Which goes to show, that different groups have differing views on how to do things, albeit with equal passion! In fact, for all intents and purposes, cave and tech gear are essentially standardized—DIR won out; it just depends on the level of detail you want to focus on.
Of course, there is one thing that everyone agrees on: the only wrong answer when a cave diver is asked why they run a certain configuration or practice a specific protocol is “because my instructor told me to do it.” Even in my original course, Steve Gerrard emphasized the need to become “thinking” cave divers.
It’s All About The Cave
Watching Chris and Reggie glide seemingly effortlessly through Ginnie was a study of poetry in motion. Like rock climbers in zero-G, I watched as they smoothly pulled and glided through the cave using favored handholds, seemingly without breaking a sweat, and even negotiated the Mud Tunnel using quarter-sized pebbles on the muddy floor for finger placements. In addition, they strategically positioned themselves among the cave’s twists and turns to shelter from the flow and stayed high on the walls in certain sections to minimize inert gas uptake.
“Dive the cave, not the line,” Chris explained in a post-dive briefing, noting that I had been doing the latter. It slowly began to sink into my awareness that in its essence cave diving is all about the cave environment much as technical climbing is about the rock.
My Jedi masters spent time discussing and demonstrating the art of proper line placement, considering cave etiquette and most importantly being able to find your way home (“You did place a REM i.e. referencing exit marker, on the exit side of your tie-in, didn’t you?”) in complete dark, should, err, when that eventuality occurs. We even practiced tracing the line with fingers as it wrapped around the rock during a lights-out drill to make sure we followed the right line home. Attention to detail!
I found an overabundance of rust in my reel skills. Other than ‘shooting a bag,’ I had not laid a line in years. Accordingly, Chris and Reggie had me spend several dives doing dozens of tie-ins and pull-offs. The trick: first getting neutrally buoyant, trim and “chill” above the line and then reaching down to tie-off (“short it, snap it, wrap it”) or pull-off the reel. I also learned I needed to “reel myself out” after pulling a reel to avoid creating loose line, which can lead to entanglements.
Part of my problem was that I have a natural tendency to rush; I get impatient, and I also use my hands a lot [Full disclosure: I’m Italian]. The problem came to a head when we were returning from a dive to “Parallel Lines.” I was last in line reeling out after I had called the dive on thirds. The guys were ahead of me waiting, urging me to get on it, and my gas meter was ticking. We were about 100 ft/30 m deep.
Try as I might I could not undo the hand spool that I had borrowed from Chris and was getting impatient. Argh! The guys were signaling, “We don’t have all day.” In a moment of what felt like brilliance, but in retrospect, could more likely be characterized as narcosis-induced delusion (thoughts of Alexander the Great flashed through my brain) I ceremoniously whipped out my line cutter and liberated the stubborn spool that I had borrowed from Chris feeling proud of my solution. Hmm, helium at 100 ft/30 m?
Reggie later told me that Chris’s eyes bugged out as he watched in horror as I cut his spool with verve. All of which made for a choice post-dive briefing. Later Reggie suggested that I imagine myself in space when I cave dive — “Think 2001: Space Odyssey,” he said, to remind myself to slow down. Great mnemonic; it helped!
A Deceptively Easy Way To Die
Cave diving has gotten much safer since the 1980s and early 1990s when there was a plethora of fatalities. Even so, as Lamar Hires once observed, diving in caves is a deceptively easy way to die. I see that clearly.
I figured that I survived four, possibly five deaths depending on how you count them, during my refresher week. The first one, I am embarrassed to say was the roll-off during the restricted blind gas share. My first instinct upon realizing that there was no gas, was to hold my breath (blame the freediving training) and bleat for help, before realizing what the problem was. Duh!
Then I neglected to install a referencing exit marker (REM) on a jump with no line arrows. That definitely could get one killed. I also passed my primary tie-off reel as we did a blind simulated silt-out follow-the-line to the exit drill starting from past the “Park Bench.” I knew it was “a” reel but didn’t realize it was “my” reel—I had no idea we were that close to the exit and figured it was someone else’s jump reel. “Know the cave,” the masters intoned (and add tactile markings to your reels)
There was the first dive at Peacock. Reggie and Chris had mentioned during my pre-dive brief that I should react appropriately should anything out of the ordinary occur during the dive. We had called the dive and headed back to the P1 entrance in single file with me in the middle. Just before reaching the entrance out Reggie, who was in the lead, suddenly veered from the line and started trucking towards a tunnel on left. I signaled him with my light and called out to no avail.
I figured that I could easily grab him and started swimming for his fins. We were in a large flat room that wasn’t going to silt, and the line was to my right so I wasn’t worried. But as I started to chase Reggie, signaling all the while, he sped up. I chased him and grabbed just before he entered the other tunnel. He acted confused and I shepherded him back to the line.
Of course, the first question that Chris asked me when we surfaced, “What is worse than one cave diver off the line?” Busted. I immediately realized the error of my ways. “Two cave divers,” I answered sheepishly. Chris noted that I had behaved like an open water diver.
“But I knew where the line was and there wasn’t a risk of silt out in the room,” I argued. He then informed me that the tunnel that Reggie was finning towards was full of mud and easily silted. If he had made it to the tunnel, the fit would have hit the shan and silted us out without a line! Lesson: deploy the safety reel first then go after your team mate.
During the week, I passed my lost line and the lost buddy drills without a hitch, but the masters told me that I would need to successfully negotiate the Mud Tunnel—a diminutive tubular phreatic passage prone to silt out with one wrong move—without silting if I were to pass my course. Of course, that would be the dive that I had troubles with my primary tie-off and various other issues that burned up gas.
We arrived at the tunnel just as I reached minimum gas/thirds. Argh! Given I was diving with two instructors with plenty of gas and needed to do this, there was no way I was going to call the dive just then. A thinking diver or foolish one? In a real-life situation likely a foolish one, as I learned a few weeks later. But that’s another story.
I was behind Reggie and tried to copy his movements to a tee including using single-finger placements, sucking in my belly (OMG) so not to touch the floor in a few places, and shuffling my fins along the roof of the tunnel. Phew! I successfully made my way through the tunnel with hardly any silting, reached the passage on other side, and called the dive with less than minimum gas. Argh! We turned and I worked my way back through, a little less calm, and managed to swim through with a bit more silting (I later learned my belt tip had come loose and dragged on the floor), but fortunately it was good enough to pass.
Color Me Tourist Cave Diver
Though I was hoping to ace my recert-course and go from near-zero to hero in my eight days with Chris and Reggie, the reality was I squeaked through course with a pass. The proviso? Gain more experience diving with seasoned cave divers, before I decided to take off on my own or lead others. No arguments there. Truth is I was there for the practice and wasn’t really concerned if I got a card or not. That said, I was exuberant that I passed.
My local dive buddy and cave diver Bill Kibbett, who was trained by veteran NSS-CDS safety officer Edd Sorenson, remarked to me that the only real cave divers were the people who lived in or frequently visited cave country (where ever it may be) and dived there all the time. “The rest of us are tourist cave divers,” Kibbs posited. Of course, it doesn’t say that on my NSS-CDS card which arrived in the mail several weeks after the course, but it probably should.
Interestingly, Steve Gerrard talked to me about that very concept in our 1990 interview about the growing number of “tour cave divers” as distinct from cave explorers. It reminds me of the principle advanced by author Malcom Gladwell’s in his book “Outliers;” a person needs 10,000 hours (about 20 hours a week for about 10 years) of ‘deliberate practice’ are to become world-class in a given field. The principal could be well applied to cave diving!
After reflecting on my thoroughly intense, humbling and joyous week immersed in Karst culture I will be grateful to become a competent tourist cave diver. I just need to get some more cave dives under my belt. God, I love this sh**!
My thanks to Chris, Reggie and Harry at Cavediving.com, Renee Power at Dive By Design, and Steve Gerrard.
Photo credit: Cave photography courtesy of Becky Schott.
Our “Man Beneath the Surface”, journalist Michael Menduno (M2) is widely respected and renowned throughout the diving world. He has been happily writing about technical diving, a term that he coined, for more than 25 years.