As much as I enjoy hiking solo, you would also think I would enjoy being out front during some of the group hikes. After all, how does the saying go? “Unless you are the lead dog, the scenery never changes?” But instead, I always gravitate toward the rear. This has not only to do with still struggling to reach the same fitness level as my fellow hikers, but I often times feel leery to step out front and lead because of my lack of confidence in my navigation skills. I have reason enough to doubt myself…
It is the summer of 1996, and I am on my third trip down to the Florida aquifer to dive in the miles of underground water-filled labyrinth of a cave system that is the source for most of Florida’s fresh water. I have completed my NSSCDS certification (National Speleological Society – Cave Diving Section) as a certified Cave Diver, which is about the most rigorous training I have ever undergone in my life! Despite the fact that I am very close friends with my dive instructor, he cut me no slack. I now have about 100 cave dives under my belt, considered to be a fairly experienced cave diver.
I am on this trip with a group – two instructors, and two other experienced cave divers, one of which is an instructor in training. We have all been diving together on numerous dives, and are comfortable with each others skill level, dive the same equipment for redundancy, and are in synch with our underwater communications.
The two instructors are teaching a class today, so it will be Barney (instructor in training) JD (least experienced of the three,) and yours truly on a pleasure dive.
There are many hard and fast rules in the sport of cave diving, where your ability to problem-solve underwater is vital, otherwise it can mean certain death. Everything is redundant in threes – three lights, three reels, and we dive the “rule of thirds.” A third of your air used in, a third out, and a third saved for emergencies. Half a mile underground, you cannot bolt to the surface for help.
The first of these rules is “Always run a continuous guideline to the cave opening.” But today, we are diving Cow Spring. It is one of the more pristine caves in the area, and considered “advanced.” For this reason, there is no guideline to the surface to discourage the less experienced from entering. Instead, the continuous guideline begins 100 feet inside the cave passage, not visible from the cave opening. This is the only exception to the rule I have ever seen. The premise is that the divers should carry a “jump reel” and tie off to the main line, running a jump line to temporarily connect the cave entrance/exit to the permanent line. We discuss this before the dive, and agree that since we can see the ambient light of the exit from the end of the permanent line, we will not run the jump reel. (An arrogant violation of Rule #1.)
When you dive with more than two divers into a cave system, the least experienced diver, in this case, JD, takes the middle position. The most experienced, Barney, will lead the dive. As the second most experienced diver, I will take the rear position. When it is time to turn the dive, everyone just does an “about face” to avoid disturbing the cake-flour like silt on the floor of the cave, and the position on the line is reversed. I will be leading the dive out of the cave, something I have done dozens of times. Just never in Cow Spring.
The dive has gone very well, and we have reached our turning point. The first person to reach a third of their air turns the dive, and JD has signaled time to turn. I am now in the lead, and we are nearing the exit.
We reach the point where the permanent line ends, and I start the unguided exit. There is a small alcove right near the mouth of the cave. A “pocket” in the rock wall, if you will. Without a guideline, I stray too far off course toward this alcove, and the others follow me. I quickly realize that I am off course within a couple of fin strokes. I reverse my position and signal to turn around by circling my upright index finger. But it is too late. JD and Barney have followed me into the small alcove. At this point, JD begins to panic, and in trying to turn around, he thrashes about and silts up the entire alcove. Within 3 seconds, we have gone from gin-clear water to being submersed in whole milk. I can’t even see my gauges, let alone the other two divers.
At this point, I hear my breath quicken. My throat tightens, as I try to read my gauge. I can now hear my heart pounding in my ears. If we can just get calm and not panic, we have enough air to wait for 5 minutes until the silt clears. But JD begins thrashing about, and he has wedged himself between me and the exit. I am trapped, and cannot even communicate with either he or Barney. As I strain to steady my rapid, raspy, shallow breathing, I have that thought flash through my head…”So this is how it ends, huh? I always wondered…I am so sorry, Mom!”
Eventually, Barney finds the exit and is able to signal with his light through the milky white silt-out for JD to follow toward the opening. I am then able to leave the small alcove and follow the light to the opening. We exit the cave and drop our regulators from our mouths while removing our masks. No one says anything for a good 5 minutes after we exit the water. We are all too scared shitless to speak.
Once we get back to the hotel and my dear friend Fitz, my instructor hears what has happened, I get the ass-chewing of a lifetime. I can still see his red face as he yells at me. “Never. NEVER! Break the rules! And NEVER lead others into uncertainty!”
I learned a lot of lessons on this dive. Rules in a cave where one mistake can mean certain death are NEVER to be broken, no matter what the experience level. Never lose sight of the permanent line. Turn around and look behind you frequently as the cave looks much different going the opposite direction. And first and foremost? “Never lead others into uncertainty.”
Not only did I come close to sealing my own fate that day, I also endangered the lives of two loving friends, simply by leading myself…and others…into uncertainty.
With “the gang’s” impending departure date looming on the calendar, I will soon once again be a solo act. Therefore I have decided it is time to purchase a hand-held GPS…Any recommendations?