On the way home from diving Ginnie Springs over the Christmas/New Years break, Jeb and I decided to stop and dive Madison Blue, a spring located on a state park just north of I-10 west of Live Oak. We had been told by several people that it was particularly nice at the moment. Neither of us had dove it so we thought it would make a nice change.
We pulled into the park, dealt with the fees and then geared up. We spent a few minutes on the surface talking to a couple divers in the area just to get a feel for the condition. All indications were that it would be an easy dive, aside from a tight squeeze into the cavern zone. The cave wasn’t suppose to be huge, but was not tiny either. As we approached the spring, the water was crystal clear blue. So far, so good.
After performing a safety drill and equipment check, we descended to the small opening and I tied off my primary real, added a safety tie off on a rock a few feet away and then squeezed through the entrance into the large inner cavern. Jeb followed. I performed a second tie off and then began searching for the gold line (the permanent line found in most caves in Florida).
We had been told to go to the left after entering the cavern to find the permanent line. I search in that direction. I found a largish slit that led down farther into the cavern. I followed it and located a piece of explorer line. It had been stained brown from tannin. I thought it was strange that the permanent line would be just plain explorer line. No one had mentioned that.
Because the line went off into a promising, if small tunnel, I decided this must be the place and that it would probably open up after a short distance. I tied off my reel to the permanent line and placed a line arrow so it would be clear which way the exit was. We began down the tunnel.
As I carefully proceeded forward, pulling with my hands and not kicking, the tunnel remained very small. Some areas required a squeeze just to pass. When the tunnel was large enough, I would look back and check on Jeb. He was always a few feet behind me where I expected him.
After a few minutes we reached a line cookie with a “1″ on it, which I assumed meant 100′ of penetration. The cave was a little larger at this point so I looked back. Jeb was right behind me, his HID light punching through the limited sandy silt I had stirred up.
I was enjoying the crawl. The water was clear in front of me and the cave was beautifully scalloped with big and small “swiss cheese” off to both sides and above. Occasionally small tunnels would branch off above or to the side. All were to small for a person. I knew Jeb wasn’t having the same experience (although I, hopefully he was still enjoying it), but that was unavoidable in a small tunnel. I hoped it wouldn’t be to bad going back.
We proceeded. The tunnel got smaller again and I could no longer look back. I would occasionally cover my light to make sure Jeb was still following. I passed a line arrow with “200″ written on it, indicating 200′ of penetration. Jeb was still behind me. I proceeded.
30 or 40 seconds later I covered my light and saw no light from behind. The cave had opened up slightly so I looked back. Blackness. My HID light didn’t help. “Shit” I thought. I must have crossed a bank of lighter silt. In the first part of the tunnel, the silt had been heavy sand so the water wasn’t clouding to bad. Now the water behind me was an impenetrable black. I must have found some clay.
I waited a few seconds to see if Jeb was coming up. Nothing. Luckily, the tunnel was large enough to turn around at that point. I turned, put my right hand in the form of an “O” around the line (using all my fingers) so that it could not come loose and began to crawl back.
The visibility had been reduced to inches at best. After 10 or 15 feet I began to see a glow. A few seconds later I was able to make out Jeb’s hand and HID light. I made the turn sign (like a child making a gun with his hand) with my left hand and put it as close to Jeb’s mask as I could. I didn’t dare let go of the line even in a small tunnel where it would be within arms reach. After a second, Jeb began to turn around.
My visibility was now zero. I could not even detect the glow from my own light inches in front of my face. I felt a jet of water off of one of Jeb’s fins and I berried my face in my left arm to prevent my mask and regulator from being kicked.
For those that have not been in a cave underwater, it is hard to grasp the severity of the situation. To many it sounds simply terrifying. Even in clear water in open tunnel. claustrophobia could lead to instant panic. Now, in a tiny tunnel, with no visibility, we needed to stay calm and simply work our way back out. There was no rush. We both had 300+ cubic feet of air to begin the dive which will last hours at 60′ (our deepest depth). Even at the relaxed pace which we entered we had only been in the cave 15 minutes.
The sound of ones buddy breathing (as well as one’s own breathing) gives the single easiest clue about their stress level. A normally calm diver will react by increasing the pace of breathing in response to adrenaline. Even though we knew we were going to be alright, our bodies reacted.
I remained calm, consciously controlling my breathing and moving forward very slowly. Someone monitoring my breathing would scarcely have noticed a change. Jeb’s breathing remained normal as well.
With one hand on the line, and the other holding my HID light I crawled along the bottom like a worm. As I moved forward, I would catch my wings on an out cropping or bang my tanks into the sealing. I’d back up and try again, slowly and I would clear whatever finger of rock had snagged me. We had entered without a problem, exiting would not be a problem either.
I felt a line arrow slip under my fingers. “One down, one to go,” I thought.
A few feet later, one of Jeb’s fins waved in front of my face and I heard his tank bang the ceiling. Instantly, the 12 inches of visibility that had returned disappeared as Jeb kicked hard to pass the restriction. I heard his breathing rate increase and he banged his tanks against some unseen finger hanging from the ceiling. I moved forward and tried to grab his shin so he would know I was there. He continued to kick and fight forward and then cleared the restriction before I could get a hold of his leg.
I proceeded forward expecting a snag and was not disappointed. First my wings caught and then my tanks hit. I backed up and moved a few inches to the right (towards the line) and tried again. No luck. Third time was a charm. I backed up shifted left and crawled forward. I cleared with only a minor tank rub. The line must have gone under an out cropping.
The rest of the exit was fairly simple. We cleared the small tunnel and came to my reel. We had more visibility again. Jeb turned as I reached the reel. I gave him the “lets get the HELL out of here sign” (I flicked him off and then gave him the gun sign) again to let him know I didn’t want to mess with the reel just then. I could always come get the reel after the silt cleared. No reason to risk it now with the possibility of 0 visibility so close.
After we exited the cavern into the basin we watch the entrance as the cloud we stirred up was slowly pumped out of the nearly stagnant tunnel into the main flow of the spring. A few minutes later I went back in with another diver (who knew were the gold line was) and move the reel. 30 minutes later we started a normal (and uneventful) dive with excellent visibility.