Let’s go cave diving! Actually, let’s not.

Heading out of the Ginnie Springs Ballroom back into the spring

I'm still in a hurricane frame of mind from last week. Prior to Irene in August of 2011, I hadn't really ever given hurricanes much thought. Those are east coast things that happen in east coast places, and being a primarily west coast kind of girl, they just didn't factor much. Until Irene of course. And in the immediate aftermath of Irene, we moved to California, saying goodbye and good riddance to all that crazy east coast weather.

So back in late June of this year, we got to thinking, wouldn't it be cool to learn to cave dive in the springs of North Florida!

Yeah, you know, maybe it would. I wouldn't know. Because as fate would have it, our trip to N. FL coincided pretty perfectly with Tropical Storm Debby, which was a pretty big deal and pretty much ruined everything.

(aside: This is how I've historically experienced hurricanes: as an inconvenienced tourist. It's strange to think of TS D with levity, looking at the photos and seeing such destruction. Is this how the tourists in VT viewed TS Irene? Probably. Weird.)

Anyway, knowing (to a degree) what we were getting into (bad weather!), we jetted off to Florida. After an hour's white-knuckle drive through a monsoon, we arrived in High Springs late at night and, after some mediocre pizza, crashed hard. Next morning, we got up at the crack of 11, ate breakfast, rented and filled tanks at Amigos, and went to Ginnie Springs to start our cave diving class. The sun was out! The storm was over!

DIY fill station at Amigos dive center.

Drive-through, do-it-yourself fill station: by far one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

Filling up the cutest double tanks EVER without ever having to move them from the trunk.

Tiny doubles: still cute.

I love tiny doubles like Paris Hilton loves purse dogs. OK. I love purse dogs, too. But still.

We did a fun dive in the cavern with our instructor first just to get the hang of the equipment and the cave environment. My two first impressions of cave diving were as follows:

1. The water is ridiculously clear! Sometimes I forgot that it was even there.

Wet rocks in the Ginnie Springs Ballroom Cavern

These rocks are underwater! Really! These are wet rocks!

2. It's dark in there. Really dark. And creepy! And oh so cool. Who knew wet rocks in the dark would be so neat? I sure didn't. It's dark at all times of day! So you can sleep in, dive in the middle of the night if you want to, whatever. Cave diving: the perfect complement to a rigorous sleeping schedule.

Wet rocks in the Ginnie Springs Ballroom Cavern

Some more wet rocks in the dark!

Ginnie Springs Ballroom Cavern

Cave divers maintain a continuous guideline to the entrance of the cave at all times, to insure against disorientation, light failure, and/or silt-out.

Wet rocks in the Ginnie Springs Ballroom Cavern

Posing next to the permanent line!

Wet rocks in the Ginnie Springs Ballroom Cavern

Diving into the cavern.

Grate at Ginnie Springs Ballroom

The welded grate at the back of the Ginnie Springs Ballroom keeps divers out of a dangerous cave system. There is generally quite a bit of flow coming out of this system through the grate; however, it was almost still the day we dove it.

Heading out of the Ginnie Springs Ballroom back into the spring

Heading back towards daylight and the spring.

Ginnie Springs

Headless divers debriefing in the spring. Creepy.

High Springs is a cute and sleepy little town. It has a restaurant called Great Outdoors that is decorated with diving stuff. We ate there every day.

Cave diving photos and gear on the walls at Great Outdoors.

Yeah, that's a reel hanging from the ceiling.

Off to a great start and enthused about the whole cave diving thing, we did a few more dives and drills, learning about running reels and laying line. After two days at the Ballroom, however, we were ready for a change of scenery. Unfortunately, the rainfall from Debby had significantly increased water levels in the Santa Fe River, causing flooding all over the region and limiting our ability to travel. Runoff was ruining visibility, and the increased flow of the river, combined with low groundwater levels from a preceding drought, was causing cave systems to reverse and siphon (the opposite of a spring; a potentially dangerous situation in which the flow of water goes into the cave instead of out of it, problematic insofar as management of breathing gas goes as well as in its ability to ruin visibility with surface runoff sediment). All sites were either shut down completely or open only to certified full cave divers (not students). It quickly became apparent that our cave diving trip was over; it would take weeks or even months for the cave systems to return to normal.

Ginnie Swamp

Ginnie Swamp.

Cave diving sign at Ginnie Springs

Obligatory shot of the warning sign, taken while traipsing around the springs to look at the (lousy) conditions.

Devil Springs System

Devil's Springs System at Ginnie with tannic river water.

Some reasonably clear-looking water at Ginnie. Wasn't clear for long!

Diver in tannic water at Devil's eye

Our cave diving instructor checking out the conditions. Note how brown the tannic water is against his white tanks.

Friendly squirrel begging for Pringles.

More friendly squirrel.

Well, that sucks, doesn't it? But we wannabe cave divers weren't going to let some stupid hurricane ruin our good time. Armed with excesses of dive gear and flexibility of schedule, we brainstormed our options over a lazy breakfast. Last-minute flight to the Bahamas to finish our cave certification? We hadn't brought our passports. Damn. Drive to the Florida Keys and dive there? Always a pleasant trip, but having done it a few times, we couldn't muster up the appropriate enthusiasm. But wait... how about the WWII shipwrecks off North Carolina's Outer Banks? Having always wanted to dive those but never yet gotten around to it, it seemed like a no-brainer. So we returned our rental tanks, got in the car, and started driving north with no real plan other than getting to NC.

It was the weekend preceding the Fourth of July. We were looking for spots on a charter boat with a day's notice on a holiday weekend. Did we make it happen? YES! More to come on that later!

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