WKPP Update: Wakulla Springs, June 9-11, 2006
Update by Casey McKinlay
Capitalizing on the success of the May 20 outing at Wakulla and the June 3 outing at Turner, the WKPP needed to take a serious shot at locating an incoming northern conduit in the P-Tunnel area of Wakulla Springs. Q-Tunnel was headed distinctly south and given the size, we were convinced it was clearly headed to Spring Creek. We believed the entire P-Tunnel area was potentially a junction or intersection between the Wakulla, Leon and Spring Creek conduits. The size, water dynamics and new information from the Turner data were enough to convince Jarrod and me to attempt a 1-week turnaround from Turner and head back out for another look. I placed a call to Mark Messersmith and Todd Leonard and told them we were a “go” for the 10th. I needed a support team and a support plan in place in less than 5 days. The response, following a deep breath or two was “you’ll have it in 24 hours.”
Based on previous experience Jarrod believed the best bet was an open area to the north-northwest; this section of cave is very large and is near the intersection of a large intersection, including the cross over tunnel from “O” and the beginning of P-Tunnel. The area is considerable in size with the main tunnel trending south at this juncture. Another possible option was farther down P-Tunnel on the west wall north of the Q-Tunnel junction. Although I had not seen the section of P-Tunnel beyond the Q junction, both Jarrod and George believed this area to be a bad bet; there was very little water movement an no obvious signs that much water moved through this area (carved limestone, ripple marks etc). Jarrod and George had checked this area thoroughly on the last exploration dive in 2000. Jarrod and I decided the two P-Tunnel leads would be the focus and pushing north to Leon Sinks would remain the priority despite the significant temptation of a wide open south going Q-Tunnel. The May 20 plan seemed to work well so we decided to add a 6th drive bottle and a 6th scooter to the plan in addition to extending the setup team to 11,000ft and the cleanup team to 6,500ft. If the cave went north we wanted to be fully prepared to make the most of the opportunity. The decompression while respectable at 15 hours would not change much past 400 minutes so the incremental time in the water would be strictly bottom time. 3 loaded reels, 6 drives, 6 scooters, a dozen empty survey pages and solid support left us ready for most eventualities. The 1-week turnaround schedule would be tight given the amount of gas to fill as well as equipment to evaluate and prep but the possibility of another significant drop in visibility overshadowed any perceived inconvenience.
Friday – June 9
I opted to move up the start time for the RB teams so we could wrap early or adjust for bad weather. The amount of equipment being prepped requires several hours and we needed an earlier start on Saturday morning, an early dinner Friday night and enough time in the conference room to cover the plan in detail. Support divers entered the basin around 3pm and with the assistance of the water sherpas, began to shuttle decompression equipment to the various depots in the basin. Staging tanks at 120ft, 70ft and 30ft in addition to hardware and decompression harnesses staged at 120ft and 50ft would take almost 3 hours to complete. The food tubes and deco RB80’s would not go in the water until Saturday morning. The rebreather teams were busy prepping equipment and Jarrod and I were doing the same in the addition to finalizing the exploration plan. Armed with new data from Turner there was some excitement in the air as the team worked throughout the hot afternoon. Basin visibility was holding steady at 60ft and green; what this would mean in terms of visibility beyond 6,500ft was unknown.
Saturday – June 10
RB80 Team 1 (RB1)
(Garland, Rhea, Rose) Two objectives – deliver 2 scooters to 6,500ft and 4 scooters to 11,000ft. In addition, pickup 6 drives from 6,500ft and deliver to 11,000ft. The biggest challenge would be patiently transporting the scooters against the flow and negotiating the line back to 11,000ft. There were multiple “T’s” and visibility had decreased since the May 20 outing; however, the team was up for the challenge.
Each diver would tow 4 scooters from the basin; this was in addition to the assortment of drive bottles. The flow at the entrance restriction was steadily increasing with each outing and the team would know right away whether it was going to be an enjoyable ride or miserable struggle. It was my job to constantly remind them how much they were going to enjoy the exit once the gear was delivered. I was hoping this strategy would work for at least 1-2 more dives. It is very useful that human nature allows us to overshadow the difficult aspects of a dive while remembering the unique opportunity and the beauty of their surroundings.
The setup team entered around 7:55am and quickly disappeared over the ledge with their payload in tow. It would be slow going to 6,500ft with only a slight improvement in speed from 6,500ft to 11,000ft; in fact, the team had to kick their way through the high flow entrance. The flow had also increased in the back of the cave but the team delivered the goods without incident and managed a speedy exit. Bottom time was 205 minutes with an average depth of 260ft.
RB80 Team 2 (RB2)
(Jablonski, McKinlay) Objective – evaluate mystery leads in P-Tunnel and explore if possible. The plan was to allow RB1 a good 45 minute head start and motor 50 minutes to 6,500ft. We departed at 8:40am and knew immediately the dive would be a long one as we were blown sideways entering the restriction at 170ft.
The first 90 minutes of the dive would be the most enjoyable with at most 3 scooters and 3 drive bottles. At 6,500ft we completed the first of many switches and motored quickly to 11,000ft passing the setup team around 9,000ft in a hazy green fog with visibility reduced to 30ft. Another quick switch at 11,000ft with 2 more scooters and 3 more drive bottles added to the payload and we were off and running to 15,000ft. As we arrived at 15,000ft I clipped off my primary scooter and switched to the video scooter. Given the relatively small amount of gas consumed from our 11k bottle both Jarrod and I decided to put down a full drive bottle and keep using our current drive. I fired up the camera and the 50wt video light and we motored into the cross over tunnel on our way to P-Tunnel. I wanted to take a few minutes to capture video of this unique and important section of cave. It was clear that this 500ft section of cave was extremely important in terms of water moving back and forth to Wakulla Springs. We quickly emerged on the other side and prepared for exploration.
Jarrod motored right and into the black void as I held the line and awaited a signal. He quickly returned with another “hell yeah it goes” look on his face and proceeded to unwrap the tape from the magnum exploration reel. It appeared he was having problems with a scooter an opted to leave it in favor of his #5 scooter. A few moments later we were barreling into the blackness as the cave widened and Jarrod motored for the right wall and hopefully the way north. The cave seemed confusing with wide rooms, low flow and huge silt mounds in the middle. Exploring such huge passages is challenging in limited visibility. Thirty feet is good visibility by most accounts but in rooms over 100 feet wide containing multiple passages the challenges can be considerable. It quickly became difficult to stay close together while running the video camera; given the reduced visibility Jarrod was forced to bounce between the distant walls while trying to identify the best North going option. The struggle was compounded by our need to move north, requiring Jarrod to regularly switch hands between his right hand (to make line wraps) and his left hand (so that he could pilot the scooter). Normally we work the left wall and bounce right as needed to check leads and gauge the size of the tunnel. The tunnel appeared to keep trending left which became a challenge to video and stay out of the line as Jarrod moved across the tunnel.
I decided to start cutting the corners to get out in front a bit, light the way and catch Jarrod coming across the cave wall. It was working but I still felt there was something odd about this section of cave. About 2/3 of the way through the first magnum reel Jarrod stopped to wrap on the left wall just before a duckunder. I motored through the duckunder and caught a glimpse of something strange in the middle of the tunnel; a guideline running perpendicular across the tunnel. Were we in O-Tunnel or P-Tunnel? Jarrod saw the line as well and prepared to tie-off. 2,000ft was a healthy loop and it would take a minute or two to figure out where we were. I motored out to the line and placed a marker. I then pulled a compass and took a shot back along the new tunnel as I prepared to survey back. After 2 or 3 stations it made sense and I stopped to inform Jarrod of where we were in the cave. We had looped back south and east so I suggested he ride the left wall to the west and confirm whether we missed anything. I surveyed 1,500ft and the cave was clean with the exception of a breakdown area on the left near station 6. We removed some of our tow equipment to squeeze through the restrictive area between boulders. We arrived back at the tie-in point and decided to motor out P-Tunnel to confirm the loop and check for more leads. Sure enough, we discovered the incoming loop and marker about 700ft into P-Tunnel and motored past. Around 16,000ft there was another Q-Tunnel sized opening on the west wall. I held the line as Jarrod motored out of sight to check it out. We lost sight of each other for a few minutes which indicated the lead was large (and the visibility was poor). Jarrod indicated being nearly two hundred feet away from my location. We decided to mark the lead and investigate further on the next dive. We decided to leave our #6 drive bottles for the next dive. They were full and we had a good supply for the exit. A quick stop at 15,000ft to pickup gear, grab a snack and drink and we were on our way out. I was eagerly looking forward to the ride back to 6,500ft with 5 scooters, 4 drive bottles and 30ft of visibility.
The return trip was a workout but we arrived back at the 190 drop with a total bottom time of 450 minutes where we would begin an afternoon, evening and morning of decompression. A fresh RB80 and food was waiting at 120ft- only 2 hours away. Wakulla had won this time out and continued to lead overall in what had become a 13 year, deep cave exploration chess match.
RB80 Team 3 (RB3)
(Messersmith, Miller) Objective – cleanup run to 6,500ft for spent scooters and drive bottles. Jarrod and I decided that the best option was to clear RB3 for departure at 9 hours regardless of whether we had hit decompression. The rationale was based on 600 minutes being our maximum bottom time and the travel time from 6,500ft to the first decompression being 50 minutes. This would allow the cleanup team an earlier start and early am exit time as opposed to running late into the night when support was light. Mark and Jim passed us on the slope, gave a quick wave and motored towards the cave entrance. Two hours later they returned with the payload of spent scooters and drives and quickly handed everything off to the support crew who would transport to the surface for extraction before everyone tired from the long day. Bottom time was 90 minutes.
Surface Manager’s Report – June 10 – 11, 2006
Huge thanks and recognition to the 28 hour surface management team of Todd Leonard, Shellie Foss, Sonya Tittle, and Dawn Karnagis. Keeping the operation on track and dive teams safe in addition to quickly and efficiently making adjustments and dealing with issues is not an easy task regardless of how much coffee is available. Knowing that there are capable, professional managers in place to deal with anything make it possible for the exploration team to maximize the productivity of the dive and ideally accomplish in 1 dive what historically has taken multiple dives.
The entire support team deserves honorable mention for a job well done. Exploring Wakulla Springs past 15,000ft is not an easy or quick undertaking. Without support, setup and cleanup it would not be feasible. Exploration at this level is either a team effort or a huge waste of time.
Todd Leonard’s Report:
Supporting multiple concurrent teams during the long decompression required by Wakulla is a challenging undertaking. In planning for it, we work closely with the gas teams to develop the best possible understanding of what will be required and when. Nevertheless, we know from experience that our support plans always evolve over the course of the day. Consequently, we need a team of thinking divers at all levels of the organization, who are good at following instructions, yet smart and alert enough to deviate from the specifics when the situation requires it. Communication is a shared responsibility, and when the support crew sees the needs or timing unfolding in a way that varies from what we expected, that information needs to be relayed back to the surface manager who can revise the plan accordingly and send in the resources necessary to meet those needs.
This level of delegation and cooperation requires a common base of understanding and a tremendous level of procedural consistency, which is the product of years of training, diving and working together. This is the team who worked through those challenges this weekend:
All delivered magnificently, with several standout points that call for mention: Bennett, Mudry, and Graser each did three in-water shifts. Tittle did two plus surface manager duties. Oigarden worked extremely hard all day, and returned at an especially critical moment in the middle of the night. Toward the end of the day, two support divers needed to give up their in-water shifts. One had a meal at a new seafood restaurant that proved to be disagreeable. The other was fighting off a cold on arrival, and the congestion and fatigue symptoms worsened while on site. We keep additional support divers geared-up and on-call for situations just like this, and the substitution was uneventful. Gordon and Beck worked overtime in terms of moving gear on the surface, all day long until almost midnight. Marshall did two in-water shifts and seemed to be constantly doing something on the surface.
In-Water Support Shifts
830-1000 Bennett, Rue, Mudry
1234-1400 Canty, Bognar, Bennett
1452-1625 Graser, Oigarden
1651-1935 Baldwin, Tittle
1915-2235 Canty, Bognar
2035-2330 Marshall, Mudry, Cox
2230-2345 Graser, Foss
2330-220 Bennett, Rue
215-415 Graser, Tittle
410-653 Doolette, Oigarden
545-653 Mudry, Marshall
The red-eye shift that stayed sharp and kept working while we’d all have been far better off asleep consisted of Bennett, Booth, Cox, Doolette, Foss, Graser, Leonard, Marshall, Mudry, Oigarden, Rue, and Tittle.
Lessons learned from the May 20 outing were incorporated into the support plan. The challenges of running a 28 hour operation were known but formidable nonetheless. Project Coordinators Mark Messersmith and Todd Leonard decided the best option was to split the team into multiple shifts and allow flexibility in terms of arrival times so the divers were fresh. The early shift divers were given downtime late in the afternoon and early evening so they were fresh for the late night shift. Fortunately many of the team members had rooms at the lodge allowing for convenient and air conditioned rest even if only for a few hours. Some of us would not see a bed until Sunday morning though the two hours of sleep before the drive home was better than nothing.
WKPP Update: Turner Sink, June 3, 2006
Update by Casey McKinlay
…On July 27, 2002, approximately a month since its last outing, the WKPP decided to set Turner up for a major exploration push the following weekend while checking conditions upstream from the sink. Conditions were excellent as Jablonski and McKinlay traveled upstream towards Innisfree after placing a number of bottles in the cave for the following weekend. All the pieces were in place and confidence was high that the following weekend would be the real deal. The setup team of Marc Singer and Steve Serras was provided with the remaining cylinders to place the following Friday before the big push.
On August 2, 2002, McKinlay arrived at Extreme Exposure in High Springs to top off an extra argon bottle, top off his breather doubles and pick up a new DUI C-400 undergarment. Everything was on schedule for the exploration dive. Irvine had just called and was leaving Ft. Lauderdale; Jablonski was on his way to meet McKinlay at Extreme Exposure; Singer and Serras were in the water at Turner placing the gas for the dive. The biggest question was whether the team had enough line and where to eat dinner in Tallahassee that night. The pieces were in place and the plan was solid or as Irvine would say, “bullet-proof.”
A few minutes later McKinlay took a call from Jablonski. Singer was on the phone and the report from Turner was the system had gone tannic. They would go ahead and pull the equipment. Exploration in Turner was once again interrupted, expectations high as to what was to be expected once the system cleared.
Quest, Spring 2003 Issue” “Turner Sink, Doorway into the Unknown”
Precious few assaults had been mounted against the labyrinth of Turner Sink; the cave had only seen two notable exploration pushes in 15 years. The first exploration was conducted by Gavin, Irvine and English in 1992 and the second by Irvine, Jablonski and Mckinlay in 2002. This enigmatic sink was the last of the big caves in the WKP to clear; this together with a heavy emphasis at Wakulla Springs and difficult logistics at Turner discouraged regular exploration. This was a long time to wait for a shot at serious exploration. Turner Sink is the southernmost entrance to the Leon Sinks Cave System; exploring south would help to answer important questions being asked by a range of state and federal managers. Over the years, Turner had come to represent both the key to unraveling the secrets of the Woodville Karst Plain while also epitomizing exploration in the WKP. There is nothing glamorous about Turner Sink. The spring basin is small, shallow and isolated; it quickly drops to zero visibility and remains that way for hours. The entrance to the cave is restrictive, requiring single file travel and minimal gear; this also complicates decompression logistics including a prohibition on a habitat. The actual decompression is more complicated, with 40ft being the shallowest depth within the cave for deployment of a small trough; the slow ascent from 30ft to the surface are be conducted in nearly zero visibility with divers often resting in the mud. Support divers need to be comfortable operating in zero visibility for many hours while moving equipment and divers in and out of the cave. These divers must be especially prepared for emergencies. This cave requires the best support divers within the WKPP. Typically setup was completed 24 hours in advance of an exploration dive; this allowed the basin and the cave system time to clear. Multiple teams were usually impractical, placing additional limits on diving efficiency. The layout was rough, primitive and everything Wakulla was not. The tradeoffs on the other hand were priceless for the WKPP cave explorer: this type of cave could not be found anywhere in the world.
Negotiating the basin and entering the cave system was much less problematic if you were the first to do so; additional team members are left without visibility during the entrance. However, upon clearing the restriction, you enter the cave through a side wall at a depth of 50ft. Directly across from the entrance is a staging rock where scooters and drive bottles are staged in advance of the dive. At this point the tunnel opens considerably into a large borehole-shaped cave measuring 40ft wide by 20ft tall with a noticeable flow pulling the diver into the cave. Particulate disturbed during the ingress blows downstream; this particulate, together with black walls that reflect very little light, reduces visibility. The rust-covered deco trough is positioned at 40ft on the ceiling directly above. Due to the depth and cave logistics it is not feasible to place a trough that is much use for decompression. The trough is more of a pit stop enabling divers to eat prior to moving into the muddy basin where the last few hours of decompression are spent. After loading up with equipment at the staging rock, the 1,000ft journey downstream is pure “Leon Sinks, Monster Tallahassee Power Cave.” Within 200 feet of leaving the staging area, the floor drops away almost immediately. Several hundred feet downstream the 70ft decompression bottles are visible on the left wall suspended from the line in the dark. After another 500 feet, the cave winds left and drops to the 100ft where the 120ft decompression bottles are visible on the floor. Several hundred feet further, the tunnel corkscrews back on itself and drops to 190 where the transition from 190 travel mix to the 300ft mix takes place. From the 190′ drop the line heads down at a 45 degree angle, remaining at depth for the remainder of the dive.
The remote and unrefined nature of the cave system, in addition to the extremely poor visibility in this section of Leon Sinks, made Turner Sink an almost impossible dive since its discovery by WKPP explorers Steve Irving and Tim Norkus in 1992. Wakulla had been the priority for much of the late 90’s while Indian Springs, Big Dismal, Cheryl and Chips Hole had been the priority for most of the early and mid 90’s. While the potential was known, there always seemed to be a hot (easier) priority elsewhere in the WKP. Given Turner’s location together with its size and flow, the assumption was that Turner was not going to be difficult to figure out; “it goes south and takes all the water in Leon Sinks with it”– at least this was the general assumption. Wakulla Springs, on the other hand, contains easier logistics given the large basin and simplified entry. However, Wakulla exploration is also relatively complicated with numerous intersecting tunnels. Wakulla made the WKPP work for every inch of cave; in fact, it continues to this day to represent this same complexity. Numerous extreme dives were done at Wakulla at distances greater than 15,000′. Many of these dives proved punishing with long decompressions, extremely limited visibility and elusive cave passages. Likewise Chip’s Hole proved equally challenging, requiring push divers to sustain significant physical abuse Like Wakulla, Chip’s was difficult and often played hard to get. Turner Sink, despite its logistics, presented divers with the most consistently large section of cave ever discovered. Moreover, the payout was significant with a main conduit that did not regularly loop back upon itself. Turner was difficult but relatively predictable, providing one possessed sufficient motivation. In the end, Turner is less mysterious but without any of the convenience of Wakulla, presenting seemingly unforgiving cave. Since the earliest days it was known as the epitome of Tallahassee Power Cave – a raging siphon that was big, deep, dark and scary.
May 31: Recon
Aware of clearing conditions in the WKP, we decided it would be in the WKPP’s best interest to evaluate exploration options in Turner Sink. We had just come off several productive dives in Wakulla including the discovery of Q-Tunnel, yet we needed to understand where Leon Sinks was trending in relation to Wakulla Springs and the newly discovered Q-Tunnel. We enlisted the assistance of Derek Bennett and Robert Bognar and headed to Wakulla County for a recon dive.
The trail back to the sink was rougher than usual, but there were plans to clear and widen the trail before the weekend. As we geared up, I noticed the sink was covered with invasive water lettuce which I had not seen before and plans would need to be made to clear some of this obstruction. Working to clear the water lettuce, we notice a very good sign. The basin was clear below the milky layer covering the first 5ft of depth. The visibility was good and flow was noticeable but not excessive inside the entrance to the cave itself. We decided to motor upstream to confirm the location of the incoming line from Greyhound Sink on the adjacent property. WKPP explorers Marc Singer and Dave Sweetin had linked the sink into the cave system a few years earlier but visibility was zero and the physical confirmation was never established. We stopped in a few spots to mark some leads and fix broken line and quickly established the location of the incoming Greyhound line almost 2,000ft upstream. We turned and headed back to Turner to check the line downstream to the dropoff and double arrow the drops for the 70ft and 120ft decompression mixes. The line looked good all the way to the dropoff so we returned to the entrance and lifted the trough to the ceiling with a pair of Halcyon lift bags. The dive was productive and the conditions looked good enough to take a shot later that week. I hardly had time to notice but I sensed from the silence that Derek and Robert were struggling to stay focused on the tasks at hand; the first dive in Turner tends to be distracting
June 2: Setup
(Cox, Mudry) Setup would be relatively quick but both divers would need at least one clear look at the layout of the sink and entrance restriction before moving the gear into the cave. The first gear trip would blitz the sink and require touch contact thereafter. Jarrod and I decided to send them in with the FX1 camera to capture clear video of the sink since we had no video record on file. The plan worked well and we got the video; the guys got a quick orientation and went to work on the gear placement. Over the course of the next two hours they placed a dozen decompression bottles, 9 drive bottles and 8 scooters. This allowed the exploration team to enter the water first thing on Saturday morning with a 190 bottle each and the video scooter; saving both time and visibility. We owe a huge thanks to Scott Cox for making the last minute schedule changes to help us out and to Doug Mudry for his consistent support efforts. Everything was placed perfectly and the stage was set.
June 3: Exploration
(Jablonski, McKinlay, Rhea) Objective: travel downstream approximately 4,500ft and begin exploration. Time permitting, capture video and verify 2002 exploration survey. Given the addition of a third diver (David Rhea) on the exploration team, I decided that I would survey into the cave while David handled video and Jarrod explored the passage ahead. We decided a 3 drive, 3 scooter plan would be best: not overly conservative, but enough to keep things from getting out of hand. We were also unsure what the line would look like and whether we would end up wasting a lot of time repairing the line along the way.
We geared up early before things started to heat up and departed by 9am. We gathered all the drive bottles and scooters at the staging rock and motored downstream to the dropoff. Somewhere along the way I broke a blade on my No. 1 scooter but failed to notice until we dropped down to 190′. Broken blade history seemed to favor Jarrod more than me, so I let Jarrod and David know I would be leaving this one and going with No. 2. After a few minutes of discussion we head into the blackness, dropping to 240′, then 260′, and then 280′ as the strong flow pulled us downstream.
Around 2,000′ downstream we came across a pair of safety tanks left by George in 2002. The tanks looked rough and would need to be removed. I remember watching George put them down in 2002 and thinking it will be nice to have those when we push the cave in a few weeks. I noticed the line was broken and the without hesitation the three of us went to work. I motored downstream to locate the other end while Jarrod and David prepared the upstream end. Both were located quickly and I recall asking (through the RB80 mouthpiece) whether this was part of the GUE Cave 3 curriculum; downstream in a siphon, loaded down with bottles and scooters on the way to explore cave but taking a time out to practice line repair. Neither seemed amused, so we hit the trigger and moved on. It did not seem to take very long to reach the end of the line from 2002. I took notice of the end of the Gavin/Irvine/English original tie-off up high on the left wall as we passed and strangely enough recalled the strange, brown rock outcroppings where Jarrod had ended the line 4 years earlier. We made quick work of the drive and scooter switch while Jarrod removed the tape from the Magnum exploration reel, David fired up the Mini-Mee video scooter and 50W video light and I pulled the survey book out. The tunnel made a 90 degree turn to the right at that point and remained about the same size as the previously explored passage: 40′ wide x 25′ high. The tunnel twisted for the next couple of survey shots, which had me concerned from an efficiency standpoint. If the average distance between stations stayed under 100′ it was going to be a long dive. Fortunately it would turn out just the opposite as I rounded the next corner and the cave blew wide open. I thought I could hear Jarrod laughing loudly and wondered if it might be me laughing to myself; I knew for sure there was nothing but silence coming from David Rhea.
The cave blew my mind and it was difficult to focus on the job at hand. The right wall and ceiling were not visible most of the time as Jarrod stayed left. The floor for that matter was not easily visible either which, was not necessarily a surprise until I started paying attention to the station depths: 275ft – 285ft – 280ft – 270ft. The floor at some stations had to be 320′ and possibly deeper. I had not seen these depths in any of the WKP systems until this dive. The walls and relief were incredible, remarkable phreatic features not unlike what we had seen a few weeks earlier in the largest section of Q-Tunnel. There were obvious indications that large volumes of highly reactive water have been eating away at these walls for thousands of years. It was a remarkable experience to be the first to witness such beauty. We hit the end of the first reel and Jarrod prepared the second for deployment. Jarrod headed off again with the second reel as I waited to see which direction the cave was headed before I could get the shot. At times it became inconvenient to stay too close because the cave was so large that it took Jarrod time to figure out which way it was headed. I also received subtle reminders at each station that we were in a siphon, requiring me to slow up about 20ft in advance of the station so I had enough time to get the info and take the shot before getting slammed into the wall or spun around backwards. The draw became more noticeable as we continued further into the cave. Given the depth, we would need to keep track of time and gas more closely than we had in Wakulla. Time seemed to fly but it had been close to two hours since we tied in the first reel. Jarrod was now emptying the second monster reel. Gas would dictate the turn as Jarrod jokingly made an effort to take the 3rd reel off my side. There’s a reason why the survey guy carries the 3rd reel, not to mention a better reason why the project director carries the 3rd reel. Jarrod completed the tie-off on the ceiling in a perfect location where the ceiling formed a large arch. The cave ahead was monstrous and black with no indication it was about to let up. I pulled the commemorative arrow from my right pocket, placed it on the line, shook some hands, switched drives and suggested we get the hell out of there. As we motored back upstream, both Jarrod and I noticed that in the frenzy, I neglected to place a single line arrow along 6,000′ of newly explored cave passageway. I could excuse my action by saying there was too much to look at or I could justify the decision by saying that any confusion as to which way was out was resolved by seeing which way the strong current would pull our team.
The pace back was reasonably quick as we stopped in only a few locations to drop arrows and mark additional exploration leads. We noticed a monster lead on the west wall about 6,500′ downstream. The entrance was deep, maybe 325′, with large, sharp limestone outcroppings. I wondered whether this might be some sort of connection back to Chip’s Hole or perhaps an incoming dark water source. We would need to check this out on another visit because it was time to go. We picked up the gear at the first drop and I resurveyed the 2002 line while we headed for the 190 bottles. Bottom time was 210 minutes at an average depth of 280ft. Turner was back open for business and quite possibly the largest, deepest, and most continuous section of pure conduit yet seen in the WKP. Conduit that large for that distance was unheard of and we were able to explore more cave during one dive than in the history of the WKPP; this may also be more cave than has ever been explored at one time at any depth.
Decompression in Turner cave takes a little getting use to, especially after spending so much time in the relative comfort of Wakulla basin. It’s not realistic to switch off your light while on deco in Turner so it was nice to have custom made Halcyon 30amp primaries capable of burning 12+ hours. As we hit the 140′ stop, the support and video team dropped in to greet us and share in the good news. Both Magnum reels were empty– which typically speaks for itself– but the entire exploration team was fired up. The excitement carried over to the support team and eventually on to the guys on the surface. This was a big day for the WKPP and the result of patience, meticulous preparation and most of all solid, unselfish teamwork. The recon, setup, exploration, in-water support and surface support contributed to the success of the exploration and in the process made history.
Thanks to Anthony Rue, Doug Mudry, Robert Bognar, Kell Canty, Mark Messersmith, Chris Werner, Scott Cox and Jim Miller for an exceptional effort. Special thanks to Jim, Scott and Chris for wrapping up a long day of exploration work at St Marks and gearing up for the late Turner shift. Seeing Jim and Scott come through the restriction to check on us and pull gear was a welcome sight. Having Robert and Doug at 20ft and 10ft in zero visibility for several hours made a big difference in terms of safety in the final stages of the decompression. Mark, Kell, Chris and the rest of the team extracted and packed all the equipment and Anthony captured some of the best post-dive surface interviews seen in some time.
The operation was tremendously successful and confirmed without a doubt the trending direction of the Leon Sinks Cave System. The compass indicated a general southeast direction with the majority of shots between 50 and 130 degrees. Data provided to Chris Werner and Todd Kincaid was immediately plotted on the map indicating a clear trend towards the southwest section of Wakulla Springs. Straightline distance between the P-Tunnel area and the end of the line in Turner is 15,000ft. Objectives going forward will be to identify an incoming north tunnel in Wakulla and explore north while continuing to push Turner south if conditions hold. Turner gave no indication that it plans to come up to a sinkhole and continues to get larger. If we can knock out the connection and answer 50+ years of speculation we can then focus on planning the 50,000ft swim through from Turner to Wakulla.
Special thanks to my dive partners Jarrod Jablonski and David Rhea. A few words come to mind but “solid” seems to sum it up best.
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