Diving Weeki Wachee

I can’t imagine how this must be.  From TambaBay.com:

In August 2007, (Brett) Hemphill and 19 other divers were able to confirm that Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the world-famous mermaids, was indeed the deepest in the United States. They made it 407 feet into the springs.

On Saturday, Hemphill and a team of divers from his Tampa nonprofit company, Karst Underwater Research, returned to the spring to continue their exploration of the underwater cave system.

AJTDive I’m a certified, advanced open water scuba diver.  There’s very little I like better than spending an hour or so with a steel tank strapped to my back filled with 3200 pounds of compressed air or Nitrox, an enhanced oxygen gas mix.  I’ve been as deep as 120 feet on the wall of the continental shelf in the Bahamas.  The world underwater is a very special place.  My wife and daughter are also certified divers, and we’ve had some extraordinary experiences on dive boats and reefs. It’s a bit like flying without the airplane.

But cave divers are a special breed.

My cousin Mike was a cave diver.  One of the people who is certified in “overhead environments”.  He said he stopped cave diving a while back because too many people he knew … good, experienced divers … were dying in caves.  My only experience cave diving was in the cavern at Ginnie Spring.  Mike had been in that little cave dozens of times, and it’s one where you never really lose sight of the opening, at least during the day.  But it was still a little bit of an eerie experience.  The vent to the main spring at Ginnie is closed off with iron bars, so it’s impossible to get back into the spring.  Not to mention the volume of water that moves out of the aquifer into the Santa Fe River.

I’ve been in Weeki Wachee spring, too.  It’s huge, as spring basins go.  And there is an underwater theater there, and the mermaids still do shows.  For a time 6 or 7 years ago, there was a dive concession at Weeki Wachee.  It may be open again, but we’d go down and dive the spring between the mermaid shows.  It’s a very interesting place with the stage props, air hoses, diving bells and such all waiting to be explored.  Occasionally a manatee will come play.  I saw a juvenile sleeping in the spring once.  I was watching from the theater, and the little sea cow … about the size of a Saint Bernard … would somehow know to float to the surface … get a breath … and sink slowly to the bottom again to lie in the sand.  I went down there three of four times to dive before the scuba concession was closed.

But to actually go down into the spring is something else again.  I can only relate second hand the stories I’ve heard about diving in that kind of environment.  The divers use an exotic gas mix with extra tanks staged down in the cave or closed circuit rebreathers to extend their bottom time.  The divers from Karst used scooters to move through the cave system.  Cave divers lay line from the entrance to be able to find their way out.  If you run out of air 5000 feet deep in a cave, there’s no just swimming to the surface where there’s air.  You’re done.

Then, there’s the silt.  Cave divers use a special kick, like a frog, but slow to propel themselves through the water.  It helps to not stir up the silt on the bottom of the cave which can cause severe disorientation … and again a good chance to die.  You can tell a cave diver because they fall so naturally into that kick no matter the dive, their hands folded about at their belt buckle.  I had Hanna teach it to me, and it’s a great way to move through the water.  It’s a very efficient, low energy kick that is quite comfortable.

So you have to imagine yourself alone, in 300+ feet of water nearly a mile’s swim from the entrance of the cave with no sound but the bubbles from the regulator and the only light from the watertight flashlight in your hand trying to to imagine all the things that could go wrong in that situation.

Yeah, me either.

I love to dive.  I love the travel and the great people and the boats and sun and incredible sights to be seen on a coral reef or wreck.  Wreck dives are some of the best.  Something that’s not supposed to be on the bottom of the ocean that is, and the ability to fly over the wreck and explore.  But cave divers go where I never will.  The good news is, they sometimes carry high definition television cameras with them.  I can stay dry and warm and live vicariously through my big-screen HDTV.

It may not be the same, but it’s what I’ve got.  And it’ll do.




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Filed under Cave Diving, Diving, SCUBA, Scuba Diving, Thoughts, Weeki Wachee

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