Friday, April 26, 2013

Weeki Wachee Spring Exploration 2012

Weeki Wachee Springs

Weeki Wachee Spring Basin

In October of 2011 I wrote about my experience with Twin Dees Cave, that is an incredible cave and I will have more updates on that shortly. In the spring of 2012 I was able to visit the other side of Park, Weeki Wachee Spring!

If ever I had put a cave on a pedestal, this was it! Weeki Wachee Spring Cave; it has an intimidating entrance, it is deep, has outrageous flow that cannot be described, with a MASSIVE and beautiful cave below that only a handful of people have had the opportunity to experience.
 Once Twin Dees was no longer dive-able we all crossed our fingers hoping the spring rains would hold off a few more months and allow us to explore this impressive cave.

On March 3rd, Brett Hemphill and I looked at the monitoring well on the USGS website (Well Data) and decided that we could make it in. The mission was familiarization with the cave entrance and to make sure the pull ropes were still in place and in good shape from previous exploration.

My heart was pumping as we waited for the last Mermaid show of the day to finish. I geared up and did a giant stride into the spring basin. The water was peaceful on top with a deep blue hue. Turtles and fish swam around the manmade decorations, and air hoses. The open water and cavern here is impressive! There is a sheer rock wall enticing me into the fissure below.

Cavern Entrance

As we approached the cave we dropped off the sand shoals at 20’ down to the cavern entrance at 40’, this isn’t so bad. We pull gently on the wall to a grate at 70 and drop our 50% deco bottles. Brett signals OK and we grab a hold of the orange rope. One must dump all of the air from the wing and de-tune the regulator. Once over the grate, it is on, the flow kicks you! But this is not as bad as I expected… We pull our way to 110’, here a rock is perched in the narrow fissure and there is a short reprieve from the current. Once off the perch, the fissure narrows and it is rocking again to 140’. The flow is howling, regulators are free flowing and you are working. At 140’ there is an alcove and the last chance to turn around. Brett signals me again to dump my wing and tuck my head, then he slipped over the edge. Flurries of bubbles rush from his regulator. The entire Weeki Wachee River is fed from and opening slightly larger than a normal doorway. This is the gauntlet; it is everything I heard it would be.  Once I went over the ledge and all hell broke loose, the flow pushed on my chest, and sucked the air from my reg.  It was hard to breathe. I tucked my head and pulled on the rope, creeping forward only inches at a time. I forced my way down. My toes were pointed; I was as streamlined as possible. My forearms burned, my ears hurt, but I was afraid to let go of the rope to equalize them. I had to be almost there, but I couldn't look up for the fear of losing my mask. About half way there is a small hump, you can almost think about resting here… almost.

Matt Exiting the Cave- Photo by Jon Bojar

Pull, breathe, and pull…it seemed like forever… just when my forearms were about to give out and I could no longer breathe… the flow disappeared and I fell into the “Witches Den.” The cave instantly becomes huge and the flow is not longer detectable. I try to arrest my fall, as I collapse from exhaustion.  I scream with excitement. I had made it into Weeki Wachee Cave!  It was just as bad as or worse than I had heard. We checked the gear line and swam over to Sheck's restriction. My air consumption was horrible, but I will never forget that first dive at Weeki. I am smiling as I sit here thinking about it!

Bailout bottles that need to be placed in the cave for exploration

Sheck Exley was the first explorer that I know of that was able to make it into the cave. He was unable to find his way out of the first room. Years later Brett Hemphill returned and found the way onward. It is a great story.

So now we are in the cave but one must get out through the miserable entrance… this is the more daunting task. To leave one must ascend from 180’ to 140’ through horrible flow. I watched Brett go first. I dumped my wing, exhaled and wrapped one leg around the pull rope. Here goes nothing… it was terrible. My side mount tanks were passing me, my crotch strap was giving me an atomic wedgie, the flow was forcing me upwards, flipping me over, ripping off my fins, and sucking air from the regulator. After fighting my way to 140’ we still had to negotiate more flow and the narrow fracture up another 100’ until we reached the calmer open water. We did our deco stops and entered the Mermaid tank at 20’. This is the mermaid changing room for their performances, and makes awesome and convenient deco habitat. I would spend hours in here over the next few months.

Brett in the Mermaid Tank

To see what the cave looks like, check out this awesome teaser VIDEO from Liquid Productions.

Now that we knew it was possible to gain access to the cave this season, plans were set in motion to get the exploration underway. Two weeks later anyone who was full cave and trimix certified was invited to participate in the Weeki Tryouts. Something like 26 divers showed up to participate. It was a rough day for some people, not everyone made it in and some hopes were broken.

Andy Pitkin finishing his 10' Decompression stop as the support crew watches

The season was kicked off. For the next two months I would spend nearly every Thursday doing setup dives then every Saturday and Sunday being support and cleanup for the exploration. It was a great time; it really meant a lot to be a part of a team of such great people and divers.

Brett Hemphill and Andy Pitkin decompress at 60'

Brett Hemphill and Dr. Andy Pitkin were the two primary exploration divers this year. While no major new tunnels were discovered this year, many loose ends were tied up.  We had multiple successful radio locations to confirm the accuracy of the survey. In order to accomplish this, a large PVC tube housing the radio transmitter had to be portaged into the cave, along with multiple scooters and many bailout cylinders. This was our usual Thursday dive, every time we had to fight against the massive flow of the headspring.  On Saturday evenings after 3:00pm when the mermaid show ended, the exploration divers followed by a slew of support divers would enter the water and begin the arduous task of diving Weeki.

Travis Emrich and Mike Poucher using the Radio Locator to find the signal 300+ feet below

The radio transmitter would be placed at a pre-determined destination in the cave. Using the paper maps and topographic overlays we could estimate this location on the surface. At a set time the divers would turn on the beacon and Mike Poucher, cave survey and radio location expert, would triangulate the exact location on the tone some 300+ feet below. It is impressive to watch the team function with such massive hurdles.
As the dive season at Weeki Wachee continued the core support crew continued to show up; Travis, Randy, Eric, Gibby, and Scott were there nearly every weekend. Our late night conversations, ideas of practical jokes, and cooking out were all incredible and memorable experiences.

A great team to work with

I had the opportunity to do two dives beyond Sheck’s Restriction this year. The first dive was a stage dive towards Helm’s Deep to investigate the unique microbial formations that inhabit this cave. Once through Sheck’s the cave drops down to a rectangular shaped tunnel with bright white walls and a contrasting ceiling. After a few hundred feet we hit a T; right goes to the River Tunnel, and left goes upstream to the big cave.  We ventured to the left. We passed over some massive breakdown piles and eventually arrived at our destination at the edge of this enormous room. I was diving a 35w Light Monkey HID (an impressive piece of hardware) this room swallowed the powerful light; it was blackness as far as I could see. Charlie and I turned the dive at the top of the hill and headed back out. Since most of the exploration has been done on closed circuit rebreathers there was more percolation than I expected, visibility was reduced, but still good.  We exited the water after 2.5 hours of deco.

Matt finishing a deco stop after a setup dive

The next dive we went to check for possible leads at the end of the River Tunnel. This time we went right at the T. This is a neat tunnel, it is large and has very smooth walls, it almost looks manmade. The cave ends abruptly just past the end of the line, so we turned and headed upstream to take a peek. Total dive time was 4.5 hours.

Matt exiting the cave from a setup dive - Photo by Jon Bojar

Deco in the 20' Habitat

I must also mention that during the 2012 Weeki Project we lost a team member.  I am unsure what exactly to write, a year later and I still do not know what to say. I did not have to opportunity to get to know Marson very well; we had met several times in passing and through mutual friends. I will simply copy the statement that KUR posted online. I can tell you that I will never forget Marson.

“On 3/31/2012 at Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida, KARST Underwater Research (KUR) team members were performing a series of dives which included entering and exiting the cave system. Marson Kay, a two-year veteran of KUR’s all volunteer team, drowned while exiting the cave system. The following information, based on eye witness and forensic evidence, provides some insight into this tragic accident.

Following a successful dive into the cave at 180 feet, Marson Kay signaled he was exiting. From that point, a 1/2” braided white rope leads upwards to 142 feet, where the crevasse area of the cavern begins. Although the cave narrows at this point, the rope continues, now colored orange with a diameter of 7/16”, and placed in the largest area, leading to a depth of 68 feet, where daylight clearly can be seen at all times. Instead of following the ropes as he had done multiple times in the past, Marson rapidly moved into a highly restrictive area of the crevasse. It is believed that this behavior was not a calculated decision but a reaction caused by the affects of an embolism he incurred while rapidly ascending from depth. According to the coroner's evaluation, Marson developed a cerebral arterial gas embolism prior to his death. Typically, this condition causes profound changes in mental functioning including disorientation, blindness, paralysis, seizures and loss of consciousness within minutes or even seconds of onset. If it occurs after surfacing, it is often fatal or profoundly disabling even with prompt recompression therapy; when it occurs underwater, the incapacity or unconsciousness it causes almost always results in drowning. 

Although safety divers were in visual contact and additional safety gas cylinders were in place, he rapidly pushed himself upward into an area where even side-mount divers could not easily access. Several attempts were made to communicate, by means of light signals as well as touch contact. Although Marson was still moving at this time, he did not directly respond to these communication attempts. After approximately 5 minutes, divers reported Marson was no longer utilizing his regulator. A subsequent review of his equipment indicated that Marson had approximately half of his gas supply remaining in both of his tanks and his regulators appeared to be working properly.

Cave diving is an intrinsically dangerous activity, just as rock-climbing, mountain biking and even horseback riding. All cave divers understand the risks of diving in underwater caves and accept them as an inescapable part of the activity they are so passionate about. Marson's accidental death is great personal loss to all that knew and loved him as well as to our team. We will do the best we can to honor his memory.

There is more I could write about this project, it enveloped all of our time for several months.  It was great diving, hard work, a lot of commitment, new friends, memories and comradery. It does not get much better that that. I am looking forward to future exploration and research at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Keep an eye on Karst Underwater Research on FACEBOOK and online for more information on this project. 

Google Earth Overlay of Weeki Wachee and Twin Dees Caves

Weeki after dark