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.