DIVING FLORIDA SPRINGS
Call to Qualify
14942 Riverside Drive
O'Brien, FL. 32071
by Sean McCarthy
I had filled four tanks for my buddy and I and hung glow lights on tree branches through woods to the edge of the swampy tannic pond. My buddy had arrived at the edge of the woods later than expected, just before sunset. It was not in the plan to haul gear down in the dark and it was revealed to me that one primary light was inoperable. I was having doubts and complained a little but I knew If I did not go, more line would be run without me and it would be that much farther for me to see virgin cave. Because of a work commitment, it really was my last chance to see this cave before anyone else had. My buddy, younger and more determined would not be disappointed. The excitement and prodding drew me in. If we could get our gear through the dark woods where we had almost worn a trail by now, the dive would be the easy part. Donning full cave gear in side mount configuration was just as easy in the dark knee-deep water as misplacing a tank in the thick layer of leaves, sticks and silt.
Standing on a log waist deep next to a deep depression we formulated a simple dive plan. I would lead and swim to the end of approximately 300 feet of line that my buddy had laid when we found the cave three days prior. I would extend the line into going cave reeling off new line as I went. I had knotted and installed 400 feet of line on the largest reel I owned. It would be my turn now to go where no man had gone before.
The primary tie was well outside the cavern attached to a small submerged log among the debris and branches that made up the bottom. I gave some test tugs on this and followed the line 20 feet across the shallow pond to where it turned and descended to 12 feet and under a ledge. A short way into the wide cavern, the line was wrapped and locked around a tree branch then extended straight down through a hole in the rock floor. I had to adjust my position to fit through the vertical restriction occupied by the remainder of the tree. Once through, the sides disappeared beneath me as I added air to my BC to slow my descent 25 feet through the tannic water to the floor of a huge room. Here the line was securely tied to a rock on the cave floor before turning horizontal into a wide opening. I had to stray from this tie off to make out the sides of this room which I estimated to be more than 30 feet wide and perhaps 20 feet high. I moved along the line and looked back to see that my buddy had descended to the tie off behind me. The line went into the darkness just above the rocky floor into a wide cave that had a noticeable flow exiting.
I kept looking to see if there were other passages even though the visibility was only about ten feet. As we followed the line I could not gain reference or see the walls of the huge cave. I was satisfied with the line wraps and impressed with the work my buddy had accomplished on the first dive into this cave. The cave was tall and I had to swim up from the line to be sure I had solid rock overhead. Only the line above the rock floor was visible in the darkness. 150 feet into the cave the line ran along across a brownish algae bed that had accumulated in a depression in the solid rock. I had to pull the line up in this area where my buddy had told me a silt stake was needed to keep the line visible. We carefully traversed over the layer of organic matter that was deep and loose. I was mostly unsuccessful looking for more openings and reference in the tall cave and had to be satisfied the line had been installed in the widest part of the passage. Further along, the line took a right angle and followed a vertical rock wall that had presented itself on our left side. Dark openings were discernable between the wall and the huge massive slabs that made up the bottom. I had to look back along the line to see the faint glow of my buddie’s light barely 15 feet away. I could tell the light I had loaned was on video mode. It barely made a dent through the dark water.
At about 300 feet of penetration we came to the end of the sheer wall where my buddy had made the final tie off at the deepest penetration in the cave. The placement was a jut at the corner of the solid wall and a directional arrow pointing to the exit was attached to the line about a foot back from where the line was wrapped. Another solid rock wall was in front of us perpendicular to our direction just beyond the end of the line. I took some leeway to swim left from the line between the walls looking for going passage in the tall canyon. I then swam 15 feet to the right along the wall that seemed to extend the full height of the cave which I estimated to be 25 feet from bottom to top. I reeled off slack from my reel and wrapped my line around the jut of rock just as my buddy approached to add light on the placement. I locked my line by passing my reel between the existing line and the sheer wall and headed about 90 degrees to the right into total blackness releasing line from my reel. The wall was a comforting reference in the darkness.
We were swimming at a depth of 40 to 45 feet over smooth tannin stained rock that had a light dusting of coarse silt. There was a narrow canyon between the wall and the slab of rock below us. As we continued the sheer wall became shorter with darkness above. I continued to reel out and again made sure we had solid rock overhead. The ceiling of the cave was black and looked like different strata. I noticed a narrow opening above the wall before returning to depth to continue into the massive opening.
I allowed perhaps 40 feet of line to be suspended as I looked for a placement to tie the line on the smooth floor across from the steep canyon on our left. I found a small jut that would have sufficed in most of the caves I had been in. I quickly learned smaller tie-offs would not work here as this rock was brittle and I was disappointed to see the delicate piece thin rock that I tied to break off and flutter toward the canyon floor out of site, leaving a white scar where the rock had been attached. I had damaged the cave. As I looked for a place to wrap my line the large areas of darkness to the right gave way to a hodge-podge of rounded limestone boulders in a rubble of breakdown. I had to go deeper between the wall and the narrowing slab to find a placement causing my line to change direction as I went over the ledge we had been following. I found a good placement and continued into the blackness reeling off about fifty more feet in a straight line out of the canyon to a lesser depth trying to penetrate the widest part of the cave.
I could now see potential passage over the sheer wall on my left and under the ceiling at 35 feet. It was narrower passage so I decided to go back and head more in a straight line into the blackness. Only narrow duck-unders could be seen under either side of the five-foot-wide canyon ten feet below the forty-five feet of depth we had attained. Soon the slabs that made up the floor on the right were rising again so I turned slightly left to avoid the rocky breakdown that was narrowing the slab below us and to resume the general heading of what I hoped was farther in. The wall to the left shortened giving way to more blackness the farther we went.
I think I had perhaps three tie offs and one additional change of direction in almost one hundred feet of line. The stair step sideways fracture was confusing to follow. I again came to a point I was ready to tie off and I could feel my buddy pulling on line so I gave slack. I had found a placement but had to go back twenty feet to see if our line had a good previous tie off among the smooth squarish slabs that I had negotiated as we did not want to have extra stations making survey difficult. It seemed a good location for the direction I had chosen. Moving forward from my chosen placement in the wide canyon I again reeled off more line into pitch blackness without turning. I continued into the openness turning slightly left again to avoid breakdown on the right of the large room.
Tie offs were difficult to locate because it was unknown the next direction of travel and visibility was still less than 10 feet. My buddie was re-tying line to placements as I was coming back after running into rock rubble with small openings, always having to try another direction in the huge cave. I had never run permanent line in new cave let alone zero visibility. I thought my inexperience surely must be frustrating my buddy trying to wrap the line without the reel as I went to and fro trying to find going cave and back and forth to the last placement. After about 250 feet of this my buddy was trying to get me to give up slack again to improve a tie off perhaps twenty feet behind me in the darkness. I continued to be frustrated trying to find placements on the smooth rock in the huge room while trying to figure out the next direction of travel. I was trying to keep a reference and at the same time stay in the main passage. But there was no symmetry in this cave. Flat slabs below, softer rounder rock on the side with space all in between and every which way. I attempted to give up the reel to my buddy as I had no idea which way to go but was not understood and encouraged to continue. I had seen a passable opening over the rocky wall to the left with openness behind it but was not in the mood to add a major restriction to this venture right about now.
I swam looking for a going passage in the irregular room that was growing from the thirty feet of width beyond my first tie off. As the room became larger I could no longer determine flow and it took more effort to identify the sides of the cave and determine direction of travel. The room was also getting longer. In fact, after running 300 feet of line looking for the going cave in the now 60-foot-wide room I did not even realize this was not a room at all. It was simply, ‘the cave.’ Nor, did I realize in the blackness that I was an insignificant speck trying to negotiate forward, much like an ant follows a wall or the edge of a sidewalk. What did strike me about this time was the realization that nobody had ever been on this part of mother earth and it was up to me to choose the route among the mish-mash of unsymmetrical features that presented themselves as we persevered through the unknown always into darkness. The honor of being here now to make the decision of how and where to move forward on behalf of those who could only retrace my steps supplanted any difficulties of the endeavor.
This new system, recently discovered, is part of a continuing project