Wakulla Springs Q-Tunnel Exploration Dive 01 – May 19-21, 2006

WKPP Update – May 19-21, 2006


Update by Casey McKinlay

While watching as the Extreme Exposure staff wrapped up a long week of preparations and finished the last round of tanks, I tried to recall where I was in July of 2000; this is when final preparations were being made for the assault on the soon to be discovered P-Tunnel. A documentary was being filmed at the time; the crew had been filming all summer and were anxious to catch history in the making. In fact, this sense of excitement was evident in the air with everyone excited about the remarkable series of dives. Thinking back upon that time I recalled the many people that had moved on to other pursuits, leaving the team for one reason or another. This period of time held many good memories while providing impressive results; at the moment the interesting part was that the same opportunity lay before us once again. The EE guys loaded the last tanks and hitched the trailer containing some 5,000+ cubic feet of trimix, Nitrox and oxygen to be used by the team over the next 3 days. With trailer in tow I headed west to Wakulla Springs.

April 23 and May 5-7 had been productive outings, allowing the team to prep the basin and stage new safety cylinders. The plan for Friday, May 19 would be to place decompression gas for the RB80 teams and prep equipment for an early Saturday morning start. Setup and cleanup teams would be logging relative average dives (now in the 100 minute range at 280′); however, the exploration team estimated a dive between 300 and 400 minutes. The plan was to explore P tunnel and verify a lead discovered in 2000. It takes several hours to properly prepare the scooters, drive bottles, rebreathers (deco and dive breather for the push team), food, hydration, video equipment and lighting. Wakulla Springs was not the sort of place that favored the unprepared. A cool, clear shade of green was awaiting the support divers as they began to shuttle gear into the basin. I began to get a sense that this was going to be a long weekend.


Support divers Doug Mudry and Kell Canty entered the basin around 3pm and began to shuttle decompression equipment to the various depots in the basin. It would take nearly three hours to stage all the equipment; this equipment included deco bottles at 120ft, 70ft and 30ft in addition to hardware and decompression harnesses (weighted harness which allows divers to remove their heavy rebreather rack) to 120ft and 50ft. The rebreather teams were busy prepping equipment for their set up; meanwhile Jarrod and I prepped equipment and make final arrangements for our upcoming dive. The Wakulla parking area was bustling with activity. Reporters and photographers moved among park staff; our team was left organizing details, providing interviews and capturing photos. There was a significant level of activity with everyone focused on getting ready for what was sure to be the biggest dive in the 10+ year history of the project. As preparations wound down we began heading to the dining room for dinner; Jarrod’s phone rang and he answered a call from George Irvine. George was calling to wish us luck and review the dive they had done in 2000. The two shared some memories and discussed possible leads and various considerations; we did not want to waste any time looking in areas previous checked by George or Jarrod. The two agreed that the lead discovered by Jarrod at 17,000′ was the most promising.


RB80 Team 1 (RB1)
(Garland, Rhea, Rose) Two objectives – deliver 4 scooters and 6 drive bottles to 6,500ft for RB80 Team 2 and detour into A-Tunnel to recover equipment misplaced on the May 6 dive. Ideally, the team would be available for setup to (11,000ft) but it was more important to get the 13 tanks out of A-Tunnel and position safeties; this setup would actually be in preparation for Dive 4 (the dive after this dive). RB1 left the Wakulla beach early and despite a short stop in K-Tunnel to swap a finicky scooter they executed their plan flawlessly. The tanks and scooters for the exploration team were delivered as planned and the A-Tunnel recovery went smoothly with all tanks delivered to 6,500ft. In fact, our team and the RB1 team passed one another in K tunnel; we were in route to our 6,500 bottle/scooter swap and their team was exiting. Everyone appeared to be in good spirits on team RB1 so we settled in for a long ride. RB80 Team 2 (RB2)

RB80 Team 2 (RB2)
(Jablonski, McKinlay) Objective – evaluate mystery lead in P-Tunnel and explore if possible. The plan was to allow RB1 a good 30-45 minute head start before motoring to 6,500ft. This first 40 minutes of the dive would be the most relaxing with only 2 scooters and 2 drive bottles in tow. From this point onward we would need to haul up to 4 scooters, 5 drives and an assortment of safeties. Custom designed lumbar supports had been designed at Halcyon to ease the back pain associated with such a payload; this sort of diving proved to be a good proving ground. After spending 10 minutes swapping equipment at 6,500ft I noticed something was wrong with my Scooter #2. The screws for the strut holding the shroud to the scooter were broken free, rending the scooter inoperable. I tried to manually adjust the leg but this was not feasible- Scooter 2 was DOA. I signaled to Jarrod that I was switching to Scooter 3 and would burn it for the next 2 legs of the trip. During planning, we both agreed that each diver could lose 1 scooter without notably impacting the dive plan. Of course we prefer not to have such problems at the very beginning of such a long dive.

The next 2 legs of the dive were uneventful; I rode the line while Jarrod rode the right wall looking for additional leads. At 11,000ft we switched drive bottles and picked up safeties left from our previous dive, making our way on to 14,500ft. Just past 14k the tunnel narrows a bit, dropping to approximately 10 feet in diameter; the flow in this smaller section of cave is very noticeable. Visibility in the cave is nice at approximately 40′ but with a slight haze. Immediately prior to entering the narrowed passage we encounter one of many T’s. The T to the left would take us 18,000+ft to the end of O-Tunnel explored by Jarrod, George and Brent in 1998); going straight would take us to the 19,000′ explored by Jarrod and George in 2000. We would be going straight through the narrowed section. Even from a distance the passage looked interesting. The rocks were blown clear of any sediment and numerous scallop marks indicated a lot of flow sometimes migrated through this area. I dropped the double burn scooter, switching to the video scooter for the ride through P-Tunnel. We each dropped a safety and switched drives before motoring ahead into the junction tunnel. After clearing the smallest part of the narrowed section of cave it became evident that the dynamics here were changing. It felt as if we were scootering through a different cave. The features on the walls were sharp and from all indications it appeared as if a tremendous amount of water moved through this section of cave; very large crayfish were numerous. The tunnel zigzagged a bit and began to shallow up as we made a 90 degree turn to the left and entered the beginning section of P-Tunnel. The tunnel continued to grow larger; I rode the line on the left wall and Jarrod went right to check for leads. I was amazed at the size of the tunnel and from all indications it appeared as if we had entered a different cave system. Not having seen this section of cave I was focused on ensuring that I did not miss any T’s.

Jarrod continued down the right wall and I tried to track him and the line at the same time. We motored for another 15 minutes and reached safety tanks dating back to 2000. Suspended on the line and covered with a range of bizarre blisters, I felt it was in our best interest to steer clear of the old tanks for the time being. We dropped the final 4 safeties and Jarrod switched scooters. Jarrod headed across the massive room to evaluate the lead and I held the line and took in the sights. A few moments later he returned with a “hell yeah it goes” signal and proceeded to pull the duct tape off our monster 3,000ft+ exploration reel. I dropped an arrow and fired up the video camera and 50watt video light. As Jarrod tied in I hovered above and waited; when he was ready we both hit the trigger and flew out into the middle of a massive tunnel. 250ft later we approached the entrance to Q-Tunnel as the walls took shape and we encountered a massive rock pile and a good spot for the first wrap. This is part of the difficulty of exploring caves in the Woodville Karst Plain. In this case we were looking for side passages in tunnels that were over 200′ wide. Often the visibility ranges from 10 – 60′, often making it difficult to locate the correct tunnel. Q tunnel shallowed up a bit more but remained massive in scale.

Jarrod tried to bounce from wall to wall so that he could choose the correct direction; previously we had agreed to aggressively pursue any leads on the right wall that might head north into Leon Sinks. However, this tunnel refused to allow Jarrod a free pass to the North. Each time Jarrod tried to work North the tunnel would end, forcing him to maintain a Southern heading. Massive rock piles as well as remarkable rock features made it difficult to focus on the tasks at hand. We made quick work of the first reel and tied in the second. Jarrod continued to motor on into larger and larger cave while I followed close behind with the video setup. As we pushed past the planned 200 minute turn around point I began considering calling the dive. Given the loss of one scooter, our desire to find a North going lead and the need to survey during our exit I opted to call the dive at 225 minutes. I saw Jarrod going for a beautiful tie point on the way and gave him the “plenty for today” signal. As he cut and stowed the reel I removed the commemorative exploration arrow from my right pocket, placing it on the line. I handed Jarrod a collection of magnum arrows to mark the line on the exit while I surveyed. We made quick work of the survey – 16 stations, 3,000ft total, largest shot 460ft, shallowest station 203ft, and deepest station 259ft.

By the time we reached 14,500ft drive bottle 4 was almost spent; we plugged in drive 5 for the ride to the door. Jarrod tossed me his backup scooter to use as I clipped off the double-leg scooter. A slow exit would not be pleasant especially for surface support given that we had already extended our agreed to bottom time (again). Plus-or-minus a few hours never seems like a big deal to us, yet we don’t have to fight the bugs all night on the Wakulla Beach. Following a short stop at 11,000ft rode wide open to 6,500ft; at this point we decided to pull all used equipment to 4,800ft (four scooters and five bottles each) for the cleanup team. It did not make sense to make their night any longer than necessary. We dropped 4 scooters and 9 bottles for pickup at 4,800ft and made excellent time to the door with only single drives and 2 scooters each in tow.

We moved quickly through the deep stops and plugged in the 190 gas to begin decompression. It would be a long night, but after 6 years of limited exploration Wakulla was open once again for business. We found ourselves wondering if Wakulla would stay clear long enough to answer our many questions or whether it would once again go dark and leave us in suspense.

Dive Profile

RB80 Team 3 (RB3)
(Leonard, Messersmith, Miller) Objective – cleanup run to 4,800ft for spent scooters and drive bottles. Once the exploration team hit the sand slope in the basin to begin decompression, the surface support and team 3 kicked into high gear. The run to 4,800ft would be a quick one, 60-70 minutes, with an evening decompression in the basin. The guys were ready to go to 6,500ft so I believe they were disappointed when they discovered we decided to help them out and shortened their dive. In the end it was a flawless performance with all gear picked up and returned to the basin for extraction by the support crew. At least each was kind enough to stop and say hello as they passed us on their way to the surface.

Surface Manager’s Report – May 19 – 21, 2006

Sonya Tittle and Hunter Swearingen
The 6am wake up call signaled a very long 24 hours awaiting the WKPP team members as we gathered at the parking area to begin getting the RB teams into the water. Surface Managers Hunter Swearingen and Sonya Tittle prepared the day’s schedule and set up the “base camp” at waters edge. Doug Mudry and Ralph Correia were in the water first as the primary video team to shoot the HD camera shots of the teams entering the system. Anthony Rue splashed down for some photographs with this team as well.

Robert Carmichael joined in and assisted waterside as RB Team 1, composed of David Rhea, John Rose, and Mark Garland prepared to enter the water at 7:40am. The Surface team continued to work hard organizing equipment and the surface managers were busy preparing last minute schedule changes as Jarrod Jablonski and Casey McKinlay, RB Team 2, prepared to start the dive.

At 8:55 am Jarrod and Casey entered the water and within minutes of their final waves to the support crew, disappeared over the ledge and down into Wakulla for their 20+ hour dive. Estimated bottom time was to be 360 minutes, with a decompression schedule of approximately 14 hours. The surface crew settled in to prepare for the support work to be done for the next 22 hours.

10:30am: Our first Meet ‘n Greet team, Kell Canty, Dean Marshall and Kevin Leonhardt entered the water to check on RB1 (Rhea, Rose, Garland) at the 120ft. mark. The divers also brought down David’s camera for him to document basin activities during deco, and delivered the 2 decompression rebreathers for Jarrod & Casey to use upon their arrival several hours later. This support team spent the next 3 hours in the water with the RB1 during their deeper water decompression. Their job is to assist in the removal of rebreathers, deco bottles or scooters the team may have been carrying.

With constant action on the surface and other WKPP park duties to attend to, team members Brian Swearingen, Erik Graser and guest Bill Oigarden head over for the scheduled cleaning of the Mastodon bones in the far side of the basin. It’s a service we offer to the park and a rotation that all our support divers have participated in. Upon completion of the bone cleaning, the guys headed into the basin with food tubes for the divers coming into the West habitat. This team also worked hard assisting with cleaning up bottles and organizing the habitat area.

David Lennon and Anthony Rue were the next team in to relieve Meet ‘n Greet Team 1, of Canty, Marshall and Leonhardt, at 12:40pm. They stayed with the RB1 from the 70′ stop and escorted them to the 50-foot ledge where RB1 were gratefully stripped from their rebreathers and put into the decompression rigs. Brian and Erik returned to the water for a 2nd time to assist RB1 from the Ledge to the West Habitat at 1:30pm.

The teams continued to check on and support RB1 in the habitat. As the hours rolled on, time to check on the arrival of RB Team 2 (RB2) (Jablonski and McKinlay) at the 120-foot mark. Mudry, Correia and David Doolette headed in for a Meet ‘n Greet at approximately 2:15pm to see if our explorers had returned from their big dive. It was admittedly a bit of a guessing game since our estimates for their return time encompassed both shorter or longer bottom times than planned – so we sent them in a bit before schedule just to be safe. We wanted to be sure we had someone there within 20 minutes of their arrival to help the guys get out of their rebreathers and safely on their way to the basin portion of their decompression. The crew (Mudry, Correia and Doolette) sat in the water and waited – going back in every 30 minutes to see if the guys had arrived. With great anticipation we sent them down for the 4th time at 4:40 pm, and were very excited to hear back that we finally had the guys back after their successful dive! Word spread quickly amongst the team and while we celebrated their exploration success – we knew the work was only beginning.

The decompression portion underway for RB2, we were now ready to start gearing up to get RB1 out of the water, and RB Team 3 (RB3) (Messersmith, Leonard, Miller), into the water. Rhea, Rose and Garland (RB1) got out of the water at approximately 6:40pm after almost 12 hours in-water. After moving their equipment up to the staging area, we got underway at 7pm; Mark Messersmith, Todd Leonard and Jim Miller would be going in 5,000 feet and picking up the scooters and stages used by Jarrod and Casey. Their dive would finish up around 2:30am with an estimated bottom time of 70 minutes, plus 5-6 hours of decompression. At 7:30pm, Chris Elmore and Robert Bourke got in to assist the divers for a 3 hour shift. They served vital roles in observing the divers, tidying up the basin and assisting the teams. Overlapping this team, Walter Gordon and Scott Cox had been in the water since 5pm also checking on the status of RB1 and RB2. We got them out to get some rest, as these guys would be back in the water later that evening.

The next 6 – 8 hours involved mostly shuttling divers in and out of the basin to support RB2 (Jablonski & McKinlay) and RB3 (Messersmith, Leonard & Miller) as they moved through the “deco stations” in the basin. Support divers do a lot of work during this time, not only checking on the divers and assisting them as needed with gear removal, gas switches, and switching habitats/deco areas in the basin, but finally escorting the teams from the 30 ft. habitat to the surface. In addition, these teams shuttle a lot of gear back and forth to the surface. It’s difficult work and our small, dedicated in-water support crew worked hard, long into the night.

At 9pm in-water shift changes began again with Canty, Marshall and Leonhardt making a second appearance for another 3-hour shift assisting the 2 teams in the basin. Supporting RB2 and helping move RB3 from the 70′ gas switch area to the next trough. They exited the water at midnight.

Anthony Rue and David Lennon entered the water at 11:15pm (exiting at 1:15am) for their 2nd shift of the day. They assisted RB3 and 2 throughout their time in the basin and keeping the surface manager aware of the position of the teams and the timeline for the next critical hours to come.

At 1am we got word of RB2’s final decompression schedule and re-adjusted our team plans to accommodate. We now expected to see them surface around 5:30am. After hauling stage bottles & scooters, and helping out on the surface for several hours, Robert Bognar and Walter Gordon geared up to enter the water at 1:10am. Continuing to support RB2 in the habitats, they also escorted RB3 (Messersmith, Leonard, Miller) to the surface.

At approximately 2:30am, RB3 surfaced after their 8 hour dive, successfully removing 9 stage bottles and 4 scooters from the cave.

Weary and not to pleased that I woke them up from their short nap, Mudry and Correia got in for their 3rd dive of the day, and also the final shift, at 3am. Their primary duties were final clean up of the basin and to assist RB2 from the final habitat to the surface, approximately a 2-hour process.

With many team members rolling in after some brief bits of rest – they congregated back down on the beach at approximately 4:30am to await the arrival of Jarrod and Casey. Each escorted by a support diver, team RB2 surfaced after their exceptional dive; Jarrod at 5:10am and Casey at 5:45am. Everyone was all smiles as the sun came up, and after enjoying some conversation with our exploration team, everyone headed off to get some much-needed rest … and a hearty breakfast!

Congratulations to the RB Teams and the support divers, and to all the team members who continued to give an extra hand over the course of the evening, or just hung out with the SM in the wee hours of the morning while we watched for gators and snakes in the water – good laughs and smiles always make hard work easy. Special thanks should go out to Dean Marshall, David Doolette and Anthony Rue for their diligence and professionalism over a hectic couple of hours during the night shift. And also to our guest Bill Oigarden for hauling gear, without being asked, for endless hours on the surface; and to Nathaniel and Jeanette Smith, volunteers at the park, who drove the “cart” for us for many hours over the course of the afternoon and organized it with the park so we could keep one with us overnight. A blessing for the team for moving the large volumes of equipment and divers up the hill to the staging area! I also want to give a personal thanks to the friends and family of the team members who stayed and supported us – especially Jackie and her mom, who stayed up all night with me… even after Jim got out of the water!

Image Gallery

Wakulla Springs May 19-21 Image Gallery

Photos by David Rhea, Sonya Tittle, and Anthony Rue

Support Issues

Casey McKinlay
It had been almost 6 years since the team supported a 24 hour operation and my compliments to the entire support and surface management team for an outstanding job. The October, 2005 dive at Chip’s Hole came close to 24 hours but the exposure, number of divers and amount of equipment did not come close to what is required at Wakulla. Mark Messersmith and Todd Leonard built an excellent support plan and support diver rotation. Hunter Swearingen and Sonya “all night” Tittle kept the schedule on track and the energy level high.
In addition to the expected fatigue from such a long operation, one setup/cleanup rebreather diver experienced post dive stress, indicating the possibility of DCS. On-site evaluations left some ambiguity as pertained to the necessity of recompression. The diver experienced some pulmonary stress and felt unusually fatigued. Per WKPP operating procedures and to ensure the diver’s safety, we transported him to Tallahassee’s Capital Regional Medical Center for evaluation. As part of the pre-dive planning process, CRMC’s Hyperbaric Medicine Department, DAN, and NEDU (Navy Experimental Diving Unit) are kept well informed about WKPP dive operations and are familiar with standard WKPP dive profiles. CRMC corresponded with experts at DAN and ultimately decided to recompress the diver using a table 6A. The diver has recovered completely with no additional symptoms. Given the extreme profiles found within the WKPP, procedures are in place to effectively deal with all types of situations; these include but are not limited to DCS, first aid, heat stroke and the various issues associated with diving and support over such durations. Surface managers are experienced with such issues and armed with the resources and authority to manage these incidents efficiently. On the end, the WKPP approach is designed to be a sustainable endeavor, functioning safely while managing the vast array of scientific, exploratory and outreach that are part of WKPP operations.

Exploration Planning