Dive to 18,000 ft Penetration (George Irvine)

Dive to 18,000 ft Penetration (George Irvine)

DIVING To 18 GRAND (Part 1 of 2)

by George Irvine

Date: Sun, 26 Jul 1998 10:52:15 -0400

Many times I go down to Ft Lauderdale beach intending to swim 10,000 meters – the length of the beach and back. I have only made it twice. 5,000 is my normal workout, and I have done plenty of 6, 7, 8, and 9,000 meter swims, but 10 just does not come off so easily.

There are problems. The Man ‘O War’s, box jellies, and other stingers, the weather, the current, the fear of the tigers, the spookiness of being alone, the dehydration, the depletion of potassium and glycogen, and the humiliation of trying to swim with Russians and kids who feel no pain, have no fear, and keep the hammer down.

It is the same in cave exploration. You show up ready to play, but there is so much that needs to go right in order to pull it off. Parker always said , “you will never find any cave unless you have the True Heart”. He mentioned some people to whom this applied ( applies) so I would understand. Bill Gavin had a red heart with the word “TRUE” on his scooter. Bill Gavin and I always found cave where there had previously been none. It always just “appeared” for us, no matter where we dove. We even added line at Ginnie.

The same thing happened Friday. To tell you the truth, I was scared that Wakulla Springs cave was going to wall out at 14+ in the big conduit ( the other 14 did wall out) . We had hit a giant room that contained an amazing optical illusion making it look like the tunnel stopped, and we had opted for a tiny offshoot to get around it, and the current had been so bad in there that it stopped us dead coming out. Pulling on the rocks at 295 while 14 thousand feet out is not too cool. I was afraid it was a sinkhole coming up that not only would be too shallow, but that I knew from the surface was blocked completely. This would have told us nothing about the cave, and would explain nothing. That means it could not be right.

We discussed it. I threw out the optical illusion possibility to JJ and Brent. Brent said he swerved over there but saw nothing. I told him that behind him I could not see the ending wall. JJ said he did not see it either, but then the back guy always has the best view. The tunnel we had taken seemed to open a bit, but not knowing the tide , that tube represented a major risk. I had been in Spring Creek and knew exactly how bad it can really get when tide and rain go against you.

We had several options. We could go to the “G’s Little Tunnel”, an open lead way out there, but we all agreed that this should connect to our last tunnel. We could go to the other 14 grand end to the west of Cherokee and see if we missed something, but none of us had marked any sure thing leads in there. The main end still had not been inspected in the rock slides, and had leads we had noted in the survey but not taken. These were giant leads, and they were in the conduit path of the cave. We needed a better look at that last 3500 feet of cave to be sure we had gone the right way. Indeed we had.

We had put more safeties in the cave on the previous two dives where we had worked tunnels closer to the entrance in the 7-8 thousand range. We had tested new routes for decompression and gas mileage ( they were deeper ) and for time. We had tried some new ideas with the scooters and with the drive gas. We rebuilt the rebreathers. We rearranged the plans and the logic. We threw some other options into the mix. We freed the rest of the team up to do their own explorations. We needed to see what really could be done, and we needed to be ready to do it anywhere.

Brent had Barry build him a new reel, one that holds 2700 feet of #24. He loaded that, I took a 1700 reel , JJ had an 1800. We met the night before and set up our gear, installing the deco bottles after the Park closed. In the morning at 6, we got rolling, with the first rebreather team of Trout, Rose and Mee taking off with our big scooters and drive bottles on their way to exploring M Tunnel where they added line in two leads. They dropped our gear at the furthest point where we were on the same route.

The B Tunnel team waited for us and went after us, going on to add line there. We would have three teams in the water doing gigantic dives – SOP for the KPP. Just as we were ready to dive, JJ’s drysuit valve blew. This kind of thing is made more annoying by the fact that we bust our chops to have perfect gear. JJ had tested that suit several times that week. When gear breaks, we wonder if we are really supposed to dive that day. Last time we tried this , we had so many things go funky at the surface , and then my light bulb , which I had just changed moments earlier in my room, blew in A Tunnel because there was no argon in it. We opted for an easy dive that day instead.

This day we were not swayed. I looked at JJ – he was cool as usual , and behind him in the water was Brent, visible only by his face above the water, holding Barry’s reel in both hands towards me. He had written “Mack” on the yellow safety tape. He was laughing with that face of his that is so funny. The last time I saw that face was before the record dive at Chips when a certain detractor of ours told him that the only reason we could do anything is that we had all the gear , the team, and the best divers, and that otherwise we were “nothing” at the NACD workshop. We were going diving.

We took off with our escort team who check the rebreathers and gear as we go in. I can not tell you exactly how we did this dive logistically, since we have a group who claims they know better than us how to do this and is trying to disrupt our work, but I can tell you the rest of the story generically.

We picked up our extra gear as we went by it, and moved it further into the cave. We also picked up the safeties we had left at 6500 on our last dive, and moved them forward ( covering ourselves all the way to 14 thousand feet). We had already done every tunnel up to 11,000 ( Cherokee Sink), so started working slowly and methodically from 11 grand.

I stayed on the line, Brent had the left, JJ had the right. When they went off, I held and spotted for them, adjusting as they moved in the 80 to 100 foot wide tunnel, and when they signaled me, I marked the leads and put them in the book, having kept track of exactly where we were, and I took a couple of survey shots to be sure, and made notes as to the location and the look of the tunnels. I could see the cave clearly in the backlight of my two partners.

After 138 minutes of checking and taking notes and sketches, we hit “The Room” at 14 grand. This time Brent was on that wall, and he came back with THE signal. I gave him the “end of the line is right there” signal, and he pulled out “Mack”. That answered my question. I dumped my last safety and adjusted my rebreather to breath from both regs and all bottles at once ( so I would not be interrupted while surveying). I now was drawing at 10:1 from 340 cubic feet of gas, I was on a 30 amp hour nicad light that looks like a Light Sabre, I was riding a Magnum Gavin scooter that is neutrally buoyant, and towing a full Gavin untouched, wearing new c-4 and a special hood that made the 68 degree flowing water feel like it was not there, and I was staring down a tunnel that looked like the most beautiful cave I had ever seen.

School bus sized boulders strewn around, white walls, giant width and height, and decent water. Huge white crayfish, old speleothems, natural black bacteria and the look of Tallahassee Power Cave with all kinds of spectacular features. The cave worked around some kind of sinkhole 300 feet above and took off for the ocean, making all kinds of unexpected twists and turns, but staying large with many side tunnels. It is as if the real volume of cave in this region does not even start until you get near Crawfordville.

The three of us moved slowly and carefully through the cave. You want to take as much in as possible when you are this far “Downtown”. Information and data gathered from here might was well be from the surface of Pluto, and must be treated accordingly. If we don’t come back with it, nobody else ever will. This is why we are there, and our job is to produce that data. We do.

The next thing I knew , Brent was holding a loop of line in his hand, and “Mack’s” shiny new spool was empty in his hand. JJ was deploying his giant reel, and I heard them both laughing. When I got to them, they both pointed at me and gave me the “you’re nuts” sign. We then had a hand signal discussion of who was more nuts, and we all kept pointing at each other.

Moving on, I started noting the time at each survey station. At 170 minutes, I still thought we could get out in 130 since 10 of that time had been checking out the stuff going into the last deco spot before we launched. I signaled JJ to wrap it up. He jokingly asked me , “turn around?”, and I pointed to my bottom timer. He tied it off, and then the discussion started up again as to who was most nuts. This time each of us was saying it was the other two. We had a good laugh, packed it in, and cruised on out. I left my whole collection of line arrows and their holder ( which I keep in my pocket) on the line.

We had gone to our last scooter and left our big one, also we switched back to those when we got to them. It is always faster laying the last piece of line with minimal gear, but we have done it with everything on us. Also, we figure everything so that we have two (per man) of whatever it would take to get back to whatever we left. I keep that score running all of the time. We know what it rally takes to do, execute and get out of these dives, and we not only do not listen to anyone who has never done it, we invoke Rule Number One as to even being on the same property with anyone who thinks otherwise. This may make a few of you understand my huge distaste for B.S. in any form, and why there is no longer any question as to what the WKPP will and will not do, and there is no longer any question or discussion as to who knows best in that regard – we do.

At 14000 feet we started collecting our safeties, and I converted mine to a rebreather bottle on the spot and hooked it into my system for the ride out. I disconnected my back gas, and we took off. JJ and Brent were laughing and examining my converter, as it had not previously been seen by them. I saw them switch regs to a full safety , but mine are din. JJ had broken the knob of of his bottle when went to turn it on, so he just unscrewed the reg, I took the bottle, and he switched to a safety. We put the other reg on his broken bottle, and added it to the outgoing batch.

Riding out towing all of the bottles took a lot longer that we thought. We picked up everything in the cave but one bottle that I did not pick up for fear that it could rip my drysuit – it was seriously crusted, and had been in there for a while. There is also another one that has been in there since 1993, which we keep forgetting to pull out. Seeing how delayed we were by the siphoning current and the wad of safeties, we left them all at 6500. This is where we need to leave from on our next dive, but we only need two of the bottles each to move forward. We may go do that open circuit with a rebreather team setup and then pull all of that stuff back to 3500 to go out of the cave completely and start all over again.

Following this dive we need to work the nasty water tunnels that nobody else will do, finish off the clear stuff that we have ignored for so long, and then we need to get on with Leon Sinks while we have the chance ( the relatively “clear” water). Next year we can rework the outer reaches of Wakulla Springs, since that is not going anywhere and we know exactly how to do it in one day of diving each time. By then, all of our guys will be on rebreathers and we will have our newest tricks in place for everyone. Also, we need our gear at the other sites – we are spread too thin now to be effective in the 200 square mile W.K.P. with so much in Wakulla.

At six hours we hit the first deco stop on the sand hill next to B Tunnel. We knew that the team above would be seriously worried, since we usually call the time exactly in advance. That bothered me a lot . I did my 250 stop, my 240, and then broke to 200 to se if anyone was there – they were not. I grabbed a Gator Aide and went back to 230. I got one drink before I lost the Gator Aide to the void above me. I turned off my light, drank some water, restarted my rebreather and floated in the dark. There was no sense looking at my depth or time, since I had not yet figured out a deco schedule, and had no tables with me.

One time I did a dive with Gavin, and at 120 feet after a few stops he asked me for the schedule. I asked him to show me his. He did not have one. I told him I did not have one. He then frisked me and looked through everything in my pockets and my books. He wrote me back and asked if I had a “New York Times” he could read. I told him to get out and get it out of the van and bring it back, or I would get out and read the schedule and come back to tell him what it was. This went through my head, only I remembered taking the deco tables out of my van, and throwing them in the trash a long time ago.

I wondered if I could just get out right there. 360 minutes or SIX HOURS at 285-300 is so ridiculous that I did not want to think about it. I started figuring for a full saturation dive. I knew what that looked like from 250-180, so worked on the rest. I could not come up with any reason to do more deco than for 3 hours, but I did come up with a few very compelling reasons do do LESS between 170 and 100. I tried it. In my mind I broke the dive into three dives: 120 to 40, 240-130, and 300 only. The first dive cleared in my mind 20 minutes into the 40 foot stop. The second nearly cleared after the a 40 minute 40 foot stop, but oxygen did not help it any, and the third cleared to 120 after the 170 stop, producing the second dive as the deco, that in turn producing the third dive as the deco, and all telling me the whole thing could well be done without ANY oxygen. That I was not willing to try, since I had to be back home the next day for sure. I knew absolutely what WOULD work, so did it. I went ahead with an 8.5 hour deco plan, but knew I was not going to get out before 2:00 am , so sent up word to Dawn to get me a room at Wakulla so I could get a couple hours sleep before I left. Panos got the room, and I got up in time to catch Barry Miller coming out of the water from his SECOND 3500 foot plus dive of the day ( he , Chris Werner and Ted Cole went back in and cleaned up the gear which we left at 3500 feet).

I could not sleep in the trough since every time I fell asleep, I stopped breathing. Not wanting to die in my sleep after a record dive, I stayed awake. I realized that with the low level of CO2 in my blood, and with my conditioning, my body was seeing no reason to breath for extended periods of time. With so much stored oxygen, that feedback mechanism was nonfunctional for me, and actually does not work in me unless the oxygen surrounding me is lower than in my body at one ata equivalent of air. I have tried it with the rebreather and with pure helium to see. I got out after 150 minutes at 30 without any problems, and went to my room.

At 5:30 I went back down to the dock and got on the horn with the divers who were still in the water. The whole WKPP crew was still out there at it, and going smoothly. I loaded my stuff and took off.

I waited until a reasonable hour and phoned Mercedes Scarabin to let her know that Brent was ok and that he was just packing up his stuff. I could not get Becca until later. Now I was driving along and I wanted to tell somebody what we did. Tell somebody about this dive. I called Carmichael, left a message. He phoned me back, he and Bill Mee were at Gavin’s house. He said, “what do you want me to tell Gavin?”. Tell him 18 grand. He will understand.

Then I was driving some more, thinking about who I could tell. There was only one person who I wanted to tell, and I could not. Parker Turner. I would have loved to be able to tell Parker Turner. I remember his frog, it had a name, but I forget it. It was some kind of bizarre rain forest frog. He told me that this frog was the “best” cave diver. He still is, but we are not a bad second. I just wish Parker were here to tell about it.