Sunday, July 14, 2013

IN the Aquifer

Leaving the light behind
(Little River Spring, Suwannee River)

Silence. Followed by the distant rumble of what sounds like thunder and the refreshing sound of a loud inhale and a burst of bubbles, escaping upwards but suddenly halted by rock. Overflowing the holes in the ceiling, some run laterally and combine in force to move out the tunnel, gliding along the ceiling and causing what I now realize is a noise made not by thunder but by bubbles.

With one sweep of the powerful light on my hand, what started as total darkness turns into a brilliant display of yellows, browns, blacks, and oranges. What started as a small, shallow opening in the limestone rock of a spring opens up to massive underwater rooms and tunnels that run for miles.

I am in the veins of the earth, the underworld. I am not in the river, but below the river, swimming in a place so unique that it is known as the cave diving heart of the world. Where water flows out of Florida’s magnificent springs is amazing – but what is even more fascinating is to swim through the pathways the water takes before it emerges at a spring. There are so many winding, connected, dead-ending, deep, shallow, silty, rocky, and sandy tunnels – the possibilities are almost endless, yet what we’ve explored is only a tiny fraction of what exists.
Cave map of the Devil's Eye system (all you see above water is the Santa Fe River!).
In the cave, we are surrounded by our life support. Having gills would be much easier, but instead, 2 steel tanks are clipped and bungeed to my sides, lights, reels, and spools are clipped to my BC, and my pockets are stuffed with spare lights – almost 100 lbs of gear at the surface but weightless underwater. The water is so clear that it feels like you’re flying – it’s as if you’re kicking through thin air but somehow being propelled forward. I’m grabbing rocks in the sky and pulling through flow that feels like a strong wind.

Without my light, there is total darkness. Not darkness like walking on the street at night or sitting under the stars. This is darkness like you can’t tell if your eyes are opened or closed – darkness like you’ve shut yourself in a closet… with a blanket on your head. It’s so dark because we’re doing a lights out drill – practice for finding the entrance in the event of a silt-out or unlikely loss of all 3 sources of light you carry (one primary source and 2 backups). My eyes closed, going with the flow, holding on to the guideline with one hand and keeping the other out in front of my face to make sure my face doesn’t meet any unexpected rocks or sudden turns of the tunnel. The guideline leads to a safe exit and is marked every so often by directional markers or “line arrows” (these always point to the closest exit) – in the dark, if you feel the line arrow, fat end first then tapering smaller, it means you’re heading out towards the exit.


I am now writing this as a certified cave diver – 14 dives later totaling about 600 minutes of bottom time. Every evening after class, I would jot down some of the things I felt in the cave, just so they were fresh in my mind, and that is the semi-abstract beginning of this post. It’s very difficult to describe what it feels like to be swimming in tunnels underground and even harder to capture what it looks like combined with how it feels using photography or a video.
Disappearing through "The Lips" at Ginnie.
We spent the first few days in relatively “large”, non-silty tunnels (aka not swimming through places where you have to really squeeze yourself… but still not exactly spots you’d like to find yourself if you get claustrophobic). And on the fourth day, we explored a side tunnel at Ginnie Springs that gave me my first experience doing what I thought only the crazies did – attempting to squeeze my body through small, oddly-shaped tunnels of rock – for fun.

One of my favorite things to do while swimming is shine my light at the trapped air pockets on the ceiling and look at the reflection in the sand below. It looks like a disco ball reflection or one of those window crystals with huge beams of light shimmering and glowing on the bottom of an otherwise pitch-dark tunnel. It’s as if the sun is penetrating 90 feet through the limestone and dirt and setting the stage for a silent disco.
It's hard to tell from this dark, poorly lit photo, but the shining on the ceiling is from light reflecting off of air pockets. You can also barely make out Harry swimming through "The Lips" as we exit Ginnie.
I always looked at cave divers and wondered what in the world could be so amazing that was worth lugging tanks, endless equipment, and wearing a drysuit in the middle of a 100-degree summer day. This wonder turned into a need to know the longer I lived in Florida. Swimming and free diving in springs all over the state throughout the past almost two years gave me a little taste – along with watching amazing youtube videos of cave dives. But nothing can prepare you for the feeling of being in a cave – silent except for cave noises, barren except for the most amazing little fish, crustaceans, and other fleeting cave organisms, and totally dark yet brilliant with your light.

Pallid cave shrimp (one of the relatively few organisms you'll see in a cave).
Dark, yet brilliant with light. This is me illuminating a passage at Little River. 
New sign at Amigos... so
many choices!
Throughout my cave class, I learned a lot about the gear part too, mostly from watching Harry and learning from his many years of experience in the water. Harry rigged up a little DiveRite Nomad BC for me so that I could try sidemount for the first time in the Ginnie cavern. After two days of diving with that BC (with heavy steel tanks) and not really being able to generate sufficient lift without looking like a turtle with a fully inflated BC at less than 70 feet, he was able to put my DiveRite Transpac back plate with a new, bigger wing, and attach a butt plate for my own custom harness. And this was all done using tools and spare pieces in the back of his blue jeep while standing in the hot sun at Amigos Dive Center – I have so much more to learn!

And of course, none of this would have been possible without Harry, my adopted grandfather, and also one of the fathers of cave diving itself. With over 7800 dives, about half of them in overhead environments, he was certainly an experienced instructor, to say the least. And he definitely knew every cave system we dove like the back of his hand, which was very comforting.  His tireless driving, tank filling, gear toting, swimming against the flow, and doing multiple dives per day was absolutely amazing. Most days, I was exhausted at the end, so I have no idea how he did it…

Harry swimming back down to the cave at Olson Sink (at Wes Skiles Peacock State Park).
This is Amigos, where we filled all of our tanks!
These yellow bottles have Nitrox in them (which just means
that it has a higher amount of oxygen than the normal
20.9% in the air we breathe).
Throughout my training, we dove at Ginnie, Little River, and Peacock. Each system is incredibly unique and interesting in it’s own way. I am beyond excited to be certified so that I can keep learning, exploring, and hopefully combine my love for diving with my curiosity about the springs, geology, and ecology as I devise a dissertation plan!

Since I was focusing on learning skills, doing drills, and checking my equipment, I only brought Greg’s GoPro in the water for the last two days of class, so I don’t have many photos. Thankfully, Harry brought a GoPro along most days and took some neat videos (and they were helpful for me in terms of body positioning, watching myself run reels, etc). I took some stills from the under/above water video I shot as well as a few from the underwater videos he shot of me and made a little album called Cave Class! on Facebook :)

Here are 3 above-water shots of the 3 sites we dove during class (it's always so fascinating to me that thousands of feet of caves exist just under where I'm standing to take these pictures):
Above the cave at Peacock.
Lesson in southern culture above water at Little River.
Quiet day at Ginnie Springs.
And finally here are links to the three videos Harry posted on YouTuble (the first one is the best… he recorded it on our last dive for my certification at Ginnie):
This is a screenshot of the first video - it's me exiting Ginnie Spring, headed for Devil's Eye (click on the first link below, not this picture, if you want to see the video... this is just a screenshot!). - Olson to Peacock… in snow

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rivers, Lakes, Springs, Oceans, and Keys!

…all crammed into June!

Post-concussion-recovery (almost 3 months later...), watery adventures began again in full force in June. There is so much to catch up on that I won't be very detailed here (mostly because 1. I should really be doing my stats homework 2. I want to work on my next cave diving post instead).

But anyway, the adventures started with a trip home at the very end of May for Allyson and Keith’s amazing Vermont country wedding and a mini vacation at home; we hiked in the woods of Vermont and Massachusetts, went to the Ben & Jerrys factory and had fresh cider in VT, explored Boston with Monica and Tyler, walked Singing Beach & Tuck's Point & the Gloucester jetti, had some authentic New England seafood, and went kayaking/paddle boarding in Manchester harbor. All of the photos from the trip are HERE.
Jumping over the water at Singing Beach.
Greg and I with the beautiful newlyweds! Congratulations Allyson and Keith :)
A short week after our whirlwind tour of New England, we headed out to Crescent Beach in St. Augustine, FL for Greg’s birthday weekend to relax in the sun, sand, and waves. Living in the middle of Florida, it’s nice to get some refreshing, salty air once in a while J

Some of these neat blue button jellyfish (Porpita porpita) dotted the sand. 
Besides my crazy hair, this picture makes me happy - Greg and my camera (AND on the beach!).
From St. Augustine, I drove directly back to meet my field ecology class at UF and piled in two vans headed south, destined (eventually) for the Keys. Along the way, we stayed at the Archbold Field Station where we swam in nearby Lake Annie, went electrofishing on Lake Istokpoga, and explored the surrounding scrub forest. We piled in the vans again to our next stop, Lake Okechobee, where we went on an airboat tour of the state’s largest lake.

 A scary looking storm midway through my exploring walk through the buggy scrub forest looking for scrub jays (left) and another storm bringing dark clouds and high winds to our dorms at Archbold Field Station (right).

A little alligator in Lake Okechobee - right next to the dock where we launched the airboats.
After our airboat ride and a watermelon feast in the parking lot, we again hit the road, headed for the Keys. We arrived at the Keys Marine Lab in Long Key late that night after far too long in the questionably drivable vans but seeing some interesting uniquely southern sights along the way. The nine of us spent the next few days going to a few lectures, poking around the field station, snorkeling in the mangroves and hard bottom habitats, and unfortunately getting slammed with a tropical storm. Sadly this meant we couldn’t snorkel the reef, but it was still a neat first glimpse of the Keys – I’m hoping to go back to do some diving in the future. 
Beautiful view from the porch of our dorm at the Keys Marine Lab.
Friendly Diodon holocanthus... he was my favorite.
One of the many sea anemones we found while snorkeling in the hard-bottom habitats of Florida Bay.
There were TONS of Caribbean spiny lobsters (Panulirus argus) around the lab. Dozens and dozens were piled around the dock, including many crammed in some old pipes. They were very curious about my camera!
Crystal and I also went to Windley Key Fossil Reef Geologic State Park, where we rescued a cormorant (Phalacrocorax aurites) laying in the street near the entrance. He was really cute but wasn't shy about poking anything that came near him aggressively with his beak... thankfully the animal rescue people dealt with catching and moving him.
On Friday morning, we headed north on the skinny 2-lane road that runs through the Keys and hit an awesome tropical fruit stand and the Everglades on our way home (before inevitably getting stuck in Miami traffic…). We were only in the park for a few hot hours but it, like the Keys, called for more exploration soon. Although it’s abundance of water that you can’t swim in wasn’t exactly my style.

Feeding time. Extreme patience and stealth.
These huge grasshoppers weren't shy - there were dozens in the trees, many of which would hop on your shoulder or arm for a ride along the trail.
Massive gator sunning himself right next to the trail in the Everglades.
All of my photos from most of the June adventures in Florida are HERE (it's a Facebook album called "Rivers, Lakes, Springs, Oceans, and Keys!"). 

So I guess that takes care of the first 2 weeks of June… and there are many more travels left, so I’ll keep it brief: a day after returning from the keys, we hit Rainbow River with the Strammers (Chanelle and Fred came up for a visit post Fred's shoulder surgery and braved the chilly but crystal clear river on a tube with Mone't, Greg, and me).
Tubes and some little minnows just above the healthy vegetation on the Rainbow River.
Next, I snorkeled in some small lakes in Hawthorne, FL for my field ecology class...
This is from one of the private lakes in Hawthorne that some grad students at UF use for their research. Our class went there on a field trip and snorkeled in a few of the clear lakes and did some seine netting.
... and the following weekend, fellow mermaid Danielle I had a beautiful little swim at Gilchrist Blue Spring.
Hydrilla forest - it's amazing to compare this to Ginnie Springs, which is only about a mile or so away. This is up a little side spring run that leads to "Naked Spring." The green reflections were absolutely breathtaking.
View from the top of the high swim platform where kids jump from... it's a lot deeper than it looks!
Mermaid Danielle :)
 More photos from our snorkel at Blue Springs are in my Green at Blue album.

For our final class trip, we went to St. Martin’s Aquatic Preserve and snorkeled in mangroves with eerily little visibility, but it was a gorgeous day on the water nonetheless!
The coolest sight of the day was the moon jellies - there were quite a few so you had to watch where you were swimming, but they were quite mesmerizing to watch swim.
… and then came my favorite part of the month… cave diving class!!! (which definitely needs it’s own post!)