Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Back to the caves

As the first rays of the morning sun reached the horizon and the full moon began to fade, I found myself driving northeast through farm fields and small towns that appear to be contently frozen a few decades back in time. I passed several hundred cows and crossed many county lines and the great Suwannee River, its dark tannic water slowly winding its way towards the Gulf, silently reminding me of how a wild Florida may have looked many years ago. I’m on my way to go cave diving, and for just a minute, my little world is complete.

Until, of course, NPR chimes in with its two cents and reminds me of what is going on outside my little world. Distant and diplomatic voices come through the radio to tell me about suicide bombers in Iraq and government financial issues, and the voices of concerned scientists remind me about climate change, bold and unknown geoengineering technologies, and the earth’s gloomy future. So much for a happy, uplifting drive – but I digress.

Just over an hour later, I arrived at Dive Outpost, where I was greeted by three hyper dogs and two new and very experienced diving friends before heading over to Wes Skiles Peacock State Park. Two years ago, I dove the Orange Grove cavern with Harry and Kate and more recently, Harry took me on a dive from Peacock to Olson Sink during cave class - but this time we explored a bit farther. There is about 33,000 feet of surveyed cave at Peacock and I’ve only seen 1400 – I could seriously never get bored.

Before the dive, we spent some time taking pictures and marveling at the high water levels and fall colors reminiscent of New England foliage. Dave and Steve introduced me to a handful of friendly cave divers as we set up our gear and prepared to go into the cave. Immediately as I entered the cavern and made the steep initial descent, I remembered why I love cave diving so much.

Illuminating the passageways as we swam deeper into the cave, large rooms and yellowish-brown rock formations would appear from the darkness. The water isn’t as clear as Ginnie or another high flow system and is instead flowing very slowly and is full of particulate organic matter, which basically makes it look like it’s snowing underwater. We swam through the snow, keeping off of the silty bottom and walls, and observing the scarce but amazing cave dwelling (troglobitic) life. Little catfish and bullheads swam in slithering motions along the bottom and up the walls while tiny cave amphipods hovered in the water column and cave crayfish rested on the bottom, fell from the ceiling, or froze motionless inches from my mask.

A flint of green light ahead told us that Olson Sink was drawing nearer. We put in a gap at Olson and continued on until thirds, at which point we turned around and headed safely for the exit. The initially refreshing water had quickly deemed my 7mm suit and hood too thin, so my pace heading out of the cave was more of a power kick than a leisurely float – but being caught up in and enamored by the foreign cave environment made the shivering tolerable and well worth it. It must be time to give up the ninja look and break out the pink drysuit!

I made the long drive home, excited to have met new caving friends and happily reminiscing about my watery morning and on a great cave-diving-high. So far, it has carried into this week… we’ll see how long it lasts until I need to head back underground…

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