102 miles offshore and negatively buoyant at 130 feet, we stood as the 5th, 6th, and 7th people to visit this underwater site in 10,000 years. I paused for a second to take in the alien landscape then quickly got back to work.
Andy and two other archaeologists dove here in 2009, and David, Dee, Andy, and I returned this past week to do some prep work for the upcoming NOAA research cruise. Basically our goal was to use a 15lb slide hammer to bang 4 stakes into the ground at 130' at the T-shaped intersection of two rivers. One of the rivers is the historic Suwannee River before extreme sea level rise caused this site to go from a prairie to 130' underwater, 100+ miles off the coast of present-day Florida. The T-shaped (rather than Y-shaped) intersection of the rivers is one of 3 found so far in Florida and signifies a different type of underlying rock called chert. Since chert was the material of choice for making tools, it is a promising site for finding artifacts, most likely from the Clovis people who lived there over 10,000 years ago.
At this point I have completely lost track of time, but today when I realized it's already Friday, I did not think 'TGIF'. Actually, I found myself wishing it was Tuesday again when the adventure began…
Unfortunately 387 feet is not how deep we dove. I have neither the skill nor certifications required to do so... yet. Fortunately, it is the length of “Fisherman’s Paradise”, the 4-star floating hotel where we stayed. So let me just preface this by saying that this week was certainly not real life.
|We left the house at 2 and made it to the dock in St. Pete just after 4. Here we were loading all of our gear and getting ready to head out to Fisherman's Paradise.|
The 15 mile ride out to the boat was beautiful and reminded me how much I miss the ocean. The air was humid and salty and the breeze was hot. In the no wake zone of the winding channel we saw dolphins and a mock pirate party ship. After we left the inner channel and hit the ocean, we spent the boat ride with our hair down and going crazy in the wind as we bounced over the waves.
|Our first up-close view of Fisherman's Paradise :) It's 387 feet long and has a 90 foot beam!|
|We came around the back of the ship to dock at their mini marina. It is a foreign ship... technically we were in Bolivia all week!|
|Our rooms were off this hallway on the main deck. Not exactly what I have come to expect for living arrangements, but I could certainly get used to it...|
|Pool bar! Not open quite yet but still awesome. Good thing the boat can desalinate its own water.|
|One of the massive schools of baitfish (most likely some type of sardines) engulfed the anchor chain as the sun began to set.|
After a long snorkel with bar jacks (Caranx ruber), sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus), barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), and a little sneaky cocoa dameslfish (Stegastes variabilis) that was too quick to let me get a picture, we showered and headed upstairs for dinner while we watched the beautiful sunset over the ocean. After dark we called an early bed time so that we could rest up for our big diving day...
All for 18 minutes.
By the time my 530 a.m. alarm went off, I was out of the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in and in my swimsuit. I was ready for what most people do not consider a normal day of work.
After a quick breakfast and necessary dose of caffeine, we headed down to the 36-foot catamaran motorboat. Equipped with 300 gallons of fuel and all of our gear and tanks, we pushed off by 7:15, headed for the Middlegrounds.
|We pushed off the dock at 7:15 with a beautiful sunrise in the background.|
After many attempts to get comfortable, I ended up finding a squishy seat in the middle of the boat and chatting with our nice captain Che. I then attempted to read my DiversAlert magazine but it was moving around so much that I couldn't seem to make out any words. Instead, I spend the better part of an hour staring out at nothing but blue water and watching our only visitors – flying fish! They would pop up right next to the boat and keep up with us for a few seconds then plummet right back into the water. It must hurt if they land wrong at 20 knots, although I'm sure they have it perfected.
What can you do in 9 minutes? As a sailor, I’m inclined to say 3 rolling dinghy starts. You could also run a little over a mile (or 2 if you’re really fast) or drive about 9 miles on the highway. There’s a lot you can do in 9 minutes, and for us that’s all the time we had.
At 130’ breathing 27% oxygen (as compared to the 20.9% in air), 9 minutes is the no decompression limit (NDL), the maximum time you can spend at depth without going into decompression diving. This is a limit we are required to stay within for scientific diving. Had we been breathing air at this depth, we would have been able to stay down for only about 5 minutes. So breathing 27% instead of 21% oxygen allows us to have about 4 more minutes of precious bottom time.
|Finally jumping in the water just before noon (after our|
The science, math, and theory behind diving is something that is beginning to fascinate me. It's something that Harry first introduced me to in my beginning Nitrox class and I am learning more and more from David. Only now am I beginning to gain a true appreciation for what my computer is doing and what is happening in my body while diving. There are so many complexities but also a large amount of safety built into the formulas; there are also a number of different algorithms and formulas to choose from. But back to the story...
We began our first descent at 11:50 after sending the stakes and slide hammer down the anchor line. At about 60-70’ we hit the thermocline and there was a 6-8 degree decrease in temperature and also a change in visibility. At the surface, the water was a crystal clear blue, but nearer the sandy bottom the visibility dropped to about 15-20 feet (or less when we’re stirring up the bottom). Fighting the effects of nitrogen narcosis (often called being 'narced'... similar to being drunk underwater at depth), we accomplished our task of getting the stakes unwrapped and 2 stakes banged into the ground with the slide hammer. All of our tasks were accomplished under pressure... literally 5 times atmospheric pressure!
As we made our slow ascent, I watched our bubbles make their way towards the sunshine but knew I could not follow. It’s weird looking up and seeing the surface but knowing that you cannot go up right away. This is ironic because it makes deep diving in the ocean much like being in a cave or cavern which have physical overhead environments. But in the ocean there might as well be a brick wall above your head and below your feet - in fact, there are two depths called the 'ceiling' and the 'floor'. If you ascend above the ceiling, you are at risk of getting "the bends". Below the floor, you will not offgas nitrogen because you are too deep - the optimum zone is between the ceiling and floor and your computer tells you (using arrows... or beeps if you're going too fast) where this optimum zone is located. We also discussed this in pre-dive safety talks just in case a computer failed during the dive. Essentially you are in a box even though you are in wide-open ocean, the sides of the box being the space around the anchor line, which we used to descend. There isn't much else to hold on to if you get far away from the boat!
In the picture above, David is checking on our oxygen bottle during our surface interval. At the end of each dive, we did a 1-minute deep stop at 60 feet and a 3 minute stop at 15-20 feet breathing 62% oxygen. It is added comfort when you come up and see the upside-down blue oxygen bottle hanging at the safety stop with 3 regulators – it looked like a spider or big sea creature. We breathed the oxygen as a safety precaution to decrease our exposure to nitrogen.
During our 2.5 hour surface interval, we snorkeled with filefish in the sargassum - still in the process of figuring out if I found a new species! Little jacks that looked like mini amberjacks, sheepshead, and bar jacks swam around the boat too. A school of brilliant blue marlins and a few moreys gave us hope for some tiger sharks but we were only lucky enough to see 1 barracuda on the 2nd descent.
|Trying out David's awesome freediving fins :) This picture is also by David.|
Dive 2 was quick and efficient, using only 6 minutes of bottom time. Andy and I descended first, finished banging in one of the stakes, then tied a line to the stake, swam a distance, and pounded and tied the new stake. David and Dee descended just as we were ready to go up and did the same with one other stake after we passed them the slide hammer. Andy and I began our slow ascent, did our 2 safety stops and took another hit of oxygen and ended with a dive time of 20 minutes. David and Dee surfaced shortly after and we were ready for the journey back - mission accomplished!!
|Me and Captain Che getting ready for our journey back to Fisherman's Paradise after a great day of diving, this time going with the wind and waves. Photo by David.|
We started our trip back at 4:15, going with the wind and waves this time. This allowed us to average about 28 kts instead of 20 kts and cut an hour off the originally 4-hour trip.
A dive off Bolivia.
Before leaving the next day, we decided to do a dive off the ship (and technically a dive off of Bolivia) into the Gulf of Mexico. Andy's ultimate goal was to check out a tangled fish trap on the anchor and mine was to practice launching a lift bag.
|I found a sand dollar!! This ended up being the first of hundreds that dotted the sandy bottom along with crabs in conch shells and starfish. They were all alive and at least the size of the palm of my hand. Photo by David.|
|Dinner plate sized starfish on the bottom; this is nearby the sand dollar I'm looking at in the picture above but much much bigger :)|
|Andy being consumed by a massive school of baitfish under Fisherman's Paradise.|
|The body shape of the Cobia (Rachycentron canadum) closely resembles that of a shark... I was really excited for a minute!|
|But I wasn't disappointed that the Cobia weren't sharks for long! Found this little nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) resting by the anchor. They are very shy and he was spooked right away when we all swam over.|
After about an hour long dive, we came back aboard and hit the showers before starting our voyage home. It was sad to leave floating paradise but certainly necessary to come back to cell and internet reception and perhaps inform worried parents where I had been for the week.
|We even took a trip back in time while above water! This awesome party pirate ship replica was headed out to sea as we were headed in to St. Pete. The people on board looked like they were having a blast... most likely drinking rum like pirates.|