WKPP – 11,000 ft in a Cave at 300 ft deep (John Todd)
11,000 feet in a cave at 300 – who’s nuts?
by John Todd
At the WKPP we do not talk about what we are going to do, we do it and talk about it later. We do not say we will triple the previous groups distance – we did it already, both in terms of linear penetration ( they actually only went 3500 in 129 dives) and in terms of total surveyed passage. In fact , we tripled their distance in less than one third the dives. Here is how it went. I received a call from the Park alerting me that the cave was clearing. I asked for two dives. They came back and said we could do it. I then called Brent and JJ separately, and asked each of them what and who they would like to have with them when they turned around at the new end of the line. They told me. I set it up.
The week before, in conjunction with some water testing dives done for Earth Day, the team placed safety bottles in the cave, and JJ and I ran the long safeties in on a rebreather and scooter trial run, just to break our friend Oliver Isler’s deep rebreather record of 6,000 feet at 260. We went 6,400, and then dropped the safeties and surveyed a big junction room, narrowing the focus of the next dive.
Using what we had learned form that dive, we planned the next weeks exploration dive. With Jack Kellon supervising, and using a four man support crew, we placed the deco bottles and the team of Hagler, Rose and Head placed our second drive bottle and main vehicle into the cave. After testing the rebreathers and getting everything comfortable, the exploration crew went in around mid day Friday.
The rebreather technicians were not happy with our rigs at first, and this was stressing me, since I hammer anyone who shows up not ready to dive, and this time I was the problem. With this kind of diving, you have to stay cool, since the long array of sequences that must go smoothly to pull this off must be met and accepted with equanimity. In my position, I have to appear confident without appearing cavalier, but must know when to go and when to abort. This was a go, but a slow go.
This would be an experimental deco, and I had been looking at it and massaging it for a week. I knew it inside and out, and I knew we would be over three hours, and maybe up to four hours of bottom time, but I also knew that I was going to test my contention that the deco need not be extended unnecessarily, and that the key would be how we handled the intermediate phase of the deco. I also knew that we would be in the water all night, and that we needed to be ok with that idea. I also knew that Brent and JJ had this figured out all the way. My main concern on this dive was whether these two would do it again after a 12-15 hour deco, so my biggest need was for this to be a great dive for them – it was.
We pushed one tunnel to Cherokee Sink, and found many other tunnels in the process, including the two tunnels that are bringing the bad water into Wakulla Springs, and the potential connection point to Leon Sinks cave, all of which we will continue to explore when we are allowed to.
Beginning the dive we dropped down from the surface and checked all of our gear at 100 feet, and then moved into the first deco area, at that point switching to our drive bottles. Moving along we found our initial times to get to each checkpoint a lot faster than usual, partially due to the low flow, and partially due to the fact that we did not need to stop for anything until we got one mile into the cave. At that point we switched bottles: one bottle will round trip 10,000 feet, but we did not know how far the cave would go in the area we wanted to explore.
We moved the eight and nine thousand foot safeties forward, and began marking leads all the way to the end, where we tied in and began exploring the main passage. The cave soon ( after 1000 feet) began to break down around Cherokee, so we cut it off and worked our way back, discovering a monster spring in the process. We repositioned and marked everything, and took notes all the way out, running at a little slower speed to be sure the scooter would make it. There was no problem with this or the gas, and we got back to our jump off point as planned.
We moved the excess gear towards the entrance to make it easier for the next team to retrieve it. It has reached the point with us that when we get within a mile or so of the entrance , we feel like we are home. After we picked up our full scooter, and were still towing an untouched nicad scooter, while the main scooter was still running strong, with three hours left on the lights, full 121’s, a full drive bottle, a warm dry suit, and plenty of safeties in the cave, we began to ride sections of the tunnel where there is no line to see what was there.
The magnitude of this place is impressive. Between a mile and 3500 feet in coming back, where the first main series of junctions ( other than the A,B,C stuff) occurs, the water is over 300 feet deep on the floor, but the roof is at 200 feet. There are blocks of limestone the size of houses lying strewn across the floor, with the cave being 150 feet wide. The floor water is cobalt blue, while the ceiling tends to hold the tannic water. Not being concerned either with the gas or the deco, I rode the floor to see what was there. Crayfish the size of lobsters are everywhere, and the clay and limestone are pristine – a truly beautiful place. The blue water gives the sensation of warmth.
As we pulled up to our first deco stop at 250 feet, the cleanup team of Rick Sankey, Ted Cole, and Barry Miller where just switching to gas above us, and they paused for a moment to check us, and were gone into the darkness. We switched our rebreathers over to the deco gas, and began our long series of stops. The cleanup team crossed us again coming out 35 minutes later, and we compared notes for a while.
At three hundred minutes we cleared the restriction and were in the cavern, where we could see the blue entranced framed in the sunlight 170 feet above us. At 50 feet we sent the rebreathers up and went to a harness rig with sidemounts. At 30 feet we went into the habitat and stayed until 4:00 am in my case, and then I went back into the water for the slow ride to the surface. Through out the deco phase of the dive our teammates stayed with us in the water in shifts. These guys make our deco alot safer by monitoring our status and supplying us with gas, food, liquids and entertainment.
By 8:00 am the Saturday morning we had everything packed up and were gone from the Park, and had just set a new World Record for distance at depth , and a new rebreather record. by 4:00 that afternoon I was in the Hall of Fame pool in Ft Lauderdale , getting ready for the next time.